Scientist appointed to farming Champion role

Tim Benton
Tim Benton
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LEEDS scientist Tim Benton might not get quoted as widely as the leaders of NFU and CLA but he has become arguably as influential a player in the debate over the future of the Common Agricultural Policy and, come to that, agricultural policy worldwide.

At the start of this month, he became Champion of the Global Food Security programme (GFS) – an official job, funded by government agencies.

The GFS is an attempt by a mighty list of research councils, watchdogs and ministries, to work efficiently together in the spending of half a billion pounds a year on farming-related research. Its Champion is a new appointment, summed up as “co-ordinator and spokesperson” but including a brief to try to fix more private sector partnerships.

Prof. Benton, 47, already had a number of titles, including Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds – meaning populations of all sorts, from microbes to man. He takes a close interest in the experimentation with crop growing which goes on at the university farm, near Tadcaster, and thinks growers could save on chemicals by finding a balance with natural pest-eaters like wasps.

In one capacity or another, he was at 14 meetings in Brussels in the week following his latest promotion, discussing the proposed reform of the CAP.

Broadly speaking, he is in favour of the European Commission’s approach – which is to make farm support conditional on environmental effort, rather than to fund stewardship as an optional add-on, which he thinks is excessively complicated.

To make a difference to butterflies, for example, you have to think bigger than one farm at a time, he says.

In case he sounds like a bunny hugger, it is worth mentioning that he last featured in the Yorkshire Post starting an almighty row, in his own circles, by saying the figures were clearly against organic farming. It took up too much space for the yields it gave and did not deliver enough biodiversity to make up for it.

When we called him last week, he talked about being impressed by a farm manager he met in Norfolk who shared his concern about soil conservation – which he thinks is key to sustainability.

“This chap runs ran four farms, so he was big enough to farm fast and lightly,” said Prof. Benton. “He had the machinery to get on and off the land without causing compaction damage. I am not saying all farms should be big but I think there is room for more collaboration between smaller farms so they can take full advantage of technology.”

He is less than hostile to GM – “There is no silver bullet but it is probably part of the solution.”

He runs a blog at www.foodsecurity.ac.uk and welcomes comment on his views. In that blog, commenting on his appointment by the GFS, he said: “Meeting the growing demands for both food and sustainability... must combine agricultural science, farming management, trade-offs between ecosystem services and agricultural production and a wide range of social issues concerning behaviour, consumption, economics and global trade.

“My own view is that sustainable intensification is possible: i.e. maintaining or increasing production whilst increasing sustainability. One route to removing the tension is with the concept of sustainable farming landscapes, instead of sustainable fields or farms. You potentially get more production and more ecosystem services out of a landscape with a mix of intensive farms and land managed for ecology, rather than from a landscape entirely managed extensively.

“We need agriculture to be both high yielding and sustainable; the good news is that routes to this destination do exist.”

He lives on a small farm near Ilkley and would like to run his own sheep there when he has time.