Conference highlights farming challenges and opportunities

First published in Farming

THE challenges and opportunities facing agriculture created by the booming world population and climate change were made clear to farmers at a recent arable conference.

Jimmy Mclean, head of agriculture at the RBS banking group, told the NIAB TAG Outlook conference at Scotch Corner the world’s population was forecast to reach 9bn by 2050.

“That is the equivalent of having an extra 200,000 coming for dinner tonight – the equivalent of the population of York – another 200,000 tomorrow night and every night for 40 years,” he said.

Tony Pexton, conference chairman and NIAB board chairman, said feeding more people would partly be met through cutting waste and better distribution, but producers would have to produce much bigger yields with everything they grow.

He said: “It is one heck of a challenge and to produce it at a profit because we are going to have to invest in more equipment and storage if we are going to do it in the same time scale.”

Mr Pexton said there was no doubt that climate change was happening and that crop varieties would have to be checked to see if they could cope.

It had already seen the Schmallenberg virus and Blue Tongue introduced by midges which previously could not survive UK winters.

Mr Mclean said the challenges, and market volatility, made it all the more important for farmers to have a business plan.

In general he felt farmers were good at business planning – but often kept the plan in their head instead of writing it down.

“That is all well and good but as a business gets larger and more complex it is difficult to hold a plan in your head”, he said. “Farm businesses are having to deal with volatility on many fronts and against that background planning becomes all the more important.”

He gave several examples – volatile feed wheat prices with the highest figure more than double the lowest; world grain demand rising 30m tonnes a year while stocks have declined; efficient farm machinery using less fuel but greatly more expensive fuel.

However, Mr Mclean also believed farming was entering the greatest period of opportunity he had seen in his working life.

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