Farming 'holds the key to society's problems'
A ground-breaking study has revealed Britain's farmers hold the key to unlocking the solutions to some of the country's bigger problems – including mass water storage, flood defence and even social care.
The report, commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference, which opens today, and co-written by a Westcountry academic, reflects on the wider contributions agriculture makes to society, beyond the usual measures of GDP and food production.
"Farming's contribution is greater than you might think," said Mike Gooding, the conference's 2013 chairman. "The research concludes farmers make significant contributions to national bio-diversity, 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, wellbeing and self-sustaining communities; but turning that opportunity into 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, farmland bio-diversity 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 proved to improve with access to farmland and nature."
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 the environment and animal welfare.
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The findings are based on a review of published literature. The work was undertaken by Professor Michael Winter, professor and director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, and Dr Peter Carruthers of Vision 37 Ltd.
"Farming contributes much more to our society than the crucial role of putting safe, nutritious food on our tables," Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said, referring to the report. "The industry is 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."
Mr Gooding said that the intention of the study was "to help policymakers, 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."
He added: "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.
"So there is an opportunity for the farming industry, the Government, and local authorities to work together to identify opportunities." ."