Dixon on...Urgent need to put agriculture back at the heart of policy

Titles mean a lot. When Defra was formed in 2001, "agriculture" was deleted from its title. Environment, food and rural affairs were then fashionable terms. Agriculture, in the widest sense including horticulture, was politically very unfashionable. Hence Great Britain became one of very few countries where the essential rural industry and dominant formative landscape force was lost.

Subsequently, Defra denied responsibilities for supporting production agriculture. Increasingly, it saw this as the province of levy boards, both for deciding policy and providing funding. Even inescapable statutory responsibilities coming from Brussels such as farm payments were put out to arm’s length agencies.

After the Brexit vote, recognition is dawning on politicians that food supplies will need safeguarding. Adding the word "agriculture" back into Defra’s title would be a positive signal, showing serious intent to develop farming and conserve our rural landscape outside the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Such symbolism will only go so far. Making it work requires an understanding of the complex interactions between farming, growing and our countryside. These people must be put at the heart of Defra. Their views must be respected and positively influence agricultural policy.

There are now very few staff of sufficient calibre and expertise because when agriculture was consigned to history we also torpedoed the MAFF postgraduate training scheme. For 50 years it produced a cadre of high-quality people skilled in science, guiding practical agriculture and horticulture. 

They benefited our food supplies, the environment and society at large. They were plant and animal scientists, engineers and economists rooted with one foot in the furrow. Some 60 plus new masters and doctoral graduates annually formed a powerhouse that made UK agricultural and horticultural research and education a world-leading force. Their ingenuity and innovation fed directly into industry, natural conservation and social progress.

The levy boards, charities and belatedly the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council have offered a modest number of postgraduate scholarships. Now we need an expanded programme to revitalise postgraduate studies for students fascinated by the interaction of science and countryside. There will be no shortage of able applicants. Current students are enthralled by agriculture. Politicians must grasp the opportunities and build for the future.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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