A ground-breaking study has revealed Britain's farmers hold the key to unlocking the solutions to some of the country's bigger problems such as mass water storage, flood defence and even social care of those in need.
The report, commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference, reflects on the wider contributions UK agriculture makes to society beyond the usual measures of GDP and food production.
"Farming's contribution is much, much greater than you might think," explained Mike Gooding, the conference's 2013 chairman. "The research concludes that UK farmers are making significant contributions to national biodiversity, accessible green space, health and communities.”
“Our farmers have the skills and geographical reach to address some of society's fundamental challenges such as health, well-being and self-sustaining communities; but turning that opportunity in to reality requires a better connection between wider society and farmers, and it is a two-way process."
"The statistics in our study are staggering - for example - UK farmland biodiversity is ‘valued’ at £938 million; people are prepared to pay an extra £2,000 annually to live in a house close to high-nature areas and health - as well as happiness - has been proven to improve with access to farmland and nature," he added.
The primary objective of the study was to uncover some of farming’s less recognised social benefits – especially those beyond the well-rehearsed issues of environment and animal welfare. The findings are based on a review of published literature. The work was undertaken by Dr Peter Carruthers of Vision 37 Ltd and Professor Michael Winter, Professor and Director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter. It was kindly supported by Burges Salmon, RSPB and Volac.
Commenting on the report, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: “Farming contributes much more to our society than the crucial role of putting safe, nutritious food on our tables.
“The industry’s worth £95 billion a year to the economy thanks to growing demand abroad for our produce and our expertise. The market rewards that, but it doesn’t reward farming’s role as one of the principal custodians of our rural landscape and wildlife. Farmers play a crucial role, which is why I’m looking at new ways to reward them for the great public good they deliver.”
Mike Gooding added that the intention of the study is "to help policy makers, the agricultural industry and the public and farmers themselves, really think about how we can use what we have better to address society’s growing needs.
The conference organisers strongly believe that farmers could hold the key to a number specific “big issues” like mass water storage, flood defence and the care of those in society who are in need. It is also very clear that children’s education and life experience is greatly enhanced by interaction with land, food production and the farming community. Based on this belief, the conference directors hope is that the findings will support policy-makers in their long-term planning.
“For therapeutic purposes alone there is irrefutable emerging evidence that there is considerable potential for farming to help address urgent issues of social inclusion and the care of disengaged and vulnerable people - via both structured day visits and, most notably, care farming. The magnitude of the need and extent of the potential benefits, combined with the still very small participation in farming therapy, suggests that the ‘market’ is well below saturation. There is, therefore, an opportunity for farming industry, government and local authorities to work together to identify opportunities and barriers and develop a strategy for greater realisation of farming therapy.”
The study concludes that farming touches people’s lives in perhaps in more ways than any other industry. A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.
Highlights of the study’s statistics
Of the UK population:
• 100% eats food from UK farms. In statistical terms 78% derives all their indigenous food and 63% of all their food from UK farms
• Approx. £2,532 million spent on ethical food from UK sources (2.6% total food spending); 160% growth in last 10 years. Red Tractor scheme assures 78,000 farms.
• At least 850 farmers markets, 4,000 farm shops, 600 PYO and 80 CSAs in the UK.
• UK farmland biodiversity ‘valued’ at £938.1 million.
• Up to 19.5% of adults made an amenity visit to farmland in the last seven days
• At least 7% regularly watches or listens to a farming-themed TV/radio programme
• At least 7% of UK population are members of a landscape preservation charity.
• 5.5% ride horses over farmland
• 0.69% is employed in agriculture
• 0.24% has visited an 'Open Farm Sunday' farm
• Home owners are willing to pay £113 on house prices for 1% more local enclosed farmland and £166 for uplands, and £2000 per year to live in house with access to high-nature areas.
• Scientific evidence of health benefits of exposure to nature; people 1.2-4.0% happier on farmland than in town.