Hilary Benn: A warming planet demands a new approach to farming in Britain

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Prioritising the protection of our soil, our water, our plants and our biodiversity is something that makes sense today. The combined effect of a changing climate and a global population that will grow to nine billion in the next 40 years defines why food production and environmental sustainability are interdependent and indivisible. We must again adapt as humankind to survive and prosper.

What happened at Copenhagen just before Christmas wasn't the end of what we're trying to achieve; it was only the start and we need to get on with it. Food production and consumption account for almost a third of Europe's greenhouse gas emissions – a level that must come down if we are to meet our targets. To help British farmers reduce the carbon that comes from using energy, two days after the Copenhagen summit ended I announced, in conjunction with the NFU and the Carbon Trust, that from next month farmers can apply for interest-free loans to invest in saving energy.

They can be used for things like grain dryers, or thermal screens or milk cooling systems. Loans of between £3,000 and £20,000 will be available and farmers will have four years in which to repay them. The Voluntary Action Plan – in which we are working with the industry in England to show how agriculture can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by three million tonnes a year by 2020 – is another example of how farming can lead the way.

Reducing emissions will be about learning from the best farmers and the best science; sampling soil nitrogen before applying the fertiliser that's needed, using integrated pest management, or simply by planting trees to soak up carbon.

It is also about investing in the skills that the farmers of the future will need. Farming should be the progressive industry of the future, with a Common Agricultural Policy – supporting productive farming – to match.

Those who work in it need greater public recognition and thanks. So do those who support it. But we also need a new culture of professionalism, to ensure that we have a new generation of skilled farmers who can pick up where those of today leave off.

This is an edited extract from a speech given by the Secretary of State for the Environment at the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday

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