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News > Old Oakhamian Stories > Balancing Conservation with Food Production

Balancing Conservation with Food Production

Andrew Brown ('82) is a farmer and environmental lawyer. He is a passionate advocate for the need to balance conservation with food production.

After studying for an Engineering Degree at Nottingham University and some time spent travelling in Australia and New Zealand, Andrew returned to the family farm in Rutland and got involved in local life. These activities have ranged from playing rugby for Oakham Town, Chairman of the Squash Club, sitting on different committees, High Sheriff of Rutland, Regional Chairman of the National Farmers Union, and even winning the stand-up comedy competition at the Leicester Comedy Festival.

What conservation schemes have you been involved in?

I’ve been involved in various different schemes since 1995. We planted a community woodland back in 2004 with the help of local Scout groups and school kids. The trees are nearly 30 foot high now!

I’ve recently become involved with a new conservation scheme, which involves putting in bird seeds, pollen and nectar and all that sort of stuff. Brilliant for the birds and the bees here. However, this involves me taking half my farm out of production. If that lost production has got to be made up by importing grain from somewhere where they’re knocking rainforests down, that’s not great. And it will be lower standards because our standards here are among the highest in the world. All you’ve done is export your conservation issues elsewhere in the world.

How do you balance the need for conservation with self-sufficiency and production?

You need to stack all your conservation measures onto the least productive parts. Take out the worst bits, such as the corners that were awkward to get into, the bits that were very wet, or had slip problems or big weed infestations. Then concentrate on growing as much as you can on the rest and incentivising us to grow as much as we can.

You don’t want to destroy your soils, because that’s your main asset. Farmers not only provide relatively cheap, at least until recently, abundant food grown to very high environmental and welfare standards, they also give you the soil, the air and the water and the view. If the land isn’t farmed, the view will change quite quickly; it will turn to scrub and brambles, and you’ll get a lot of crows and pigeons and foxes and not much else. Masses of eco systems rely utterly on farming.

Someone said one cow, for instance, supports three times its own weight in insects. That’s an enormous number of insects. They keep the grass down. And then certain insects like it that short and certain birds do that eat insects. It’s what’s called a trophic cascade; it’s interrelated.

Good agricultural practices and good conservation go hand-in-hand, but you’ve still got to be able to feed 70 million people.

Is it possible to have sustainable farming in this country?

Yes. if you’re extensively grazing sheep or cattle, I think that’s entirely sustainable. 70% of the farmland is farmed; of that land 70% can only grow rough grass, it’s the other 30% that grows crops. 70% of our farmland is grass, because that’s what we grow best. We’re really good at growing grass because of the maritime climate and it rains. Extensive livestock in this country, I think, is very, very sustainable, because they’re eating stuff that grows out of the ground. Humans can’t eat the grass, so the best way to utilise that grass is to put it through a third party – sheep, cattle, goats – to turn it into meat-based protein that we can then eat. What isn’t sustainable is importing meat from massive feedlots like they have in America. It’s very economical in terms of area, but there’s no ecosystem being supported by it, and everything has to be carted to and from them.

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