Hilary Benn: We must produce more food – without risking farmers’ futures

I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs. No buts. The only requirements: that consumers want what’s produced and that the way it’s produced sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.

This is not about targets for production or self-sufficiency. We are a trading nation. Some of the food we grow, we export; nearly £12bn worth in 2007. And the food that we import is really important too.

It is about productive, efficient farming. It is about the higher-yielding seeds, better irrigation and more sustainable use of fertilisers that have transformed agriculture in parts of the world.

Norman Borlaug – the man who brought these technologies to the developing world – made the point that if instead of rising, yields had stayed at their 1950 levels, then by the end of the century just gone we would have needed an extra 1.8bn hectares of land to grow enough grain for the world. That’s an area about the size of South America. It shows why improving yields is so important.

But, as we all know, intensive production does not come without a cost. We are taking three times more water out of our rivers today than we did 50 years ago. 60 per cent of our ecosystems are now being degraded or used unsustainably. The ripping out of hedgerows did real damage.

And yet, as we all know, the soil, the water, the air, the plants, and the forests are the very foundation on which our food – and therefore our existence – depends.

So in meeting demand today, we must ensure that we do not destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow. It’s not about either environmental sustainability or production. It has to be both.

We are also working together to see how we can best retain the environmental benefits of set aside, while settling on a better approach for farmers.

I know it’s controversial. I know that some may think that there isn’t a problem to solve. So let’s go back to the start and ask ourselves why the way in which you farm is so important.

And the answer is simply because it really does deliver important environmental benefits – and over time these benefits will be vital to maintaining levels of production.

The Environment Secretary Hilary Benn was speaking to the National Farmers’ Union earlier this week