It’s madness to think that Britain can turn away from producing its own food

“Farming is a form of manufacturing,” says Sir James Dyson, “I want to make things.” The famous inventor has said it many times, in fact, but as we talk I can look out his window and literally see what he means.

I’m his guest in a modern, austere office in the heart of Dyson Farms in Carrington, Lincolnshire. In the same complex, producing a cow smell, is one of its two huge anaerobic digesters (AD), which provide much of the energy for its operation. They generate the equivalent of the electricity consumed by 10,000 households. Anything not used on the farms is sold to the national grid. The “digestate” (waste) of AD then constitutes a good fertilizer. The buzzword is “circular farming”.

In my mouth is one of Dyson’s tasty winter strawberries, a growing share of the 750 tonnes a year it produces, supplying them to M&S. The greenhouse’s 72 kilometers of pipes are heated by the adjoining AD.

Right next to it is the greenhouse, so big that the best way to get through it is on the small electric scooters provided. After our sandwich lunch, I watch prototype robots attempt to pick strawberries. They still don’t do this correctly, with their color recognition being scrambled by LED lighting, says Sir James. Eventually, however, they will be able to work, unlike human beings, day and night. Picking carts will be driven on self-driving vehicles from the greenhouse to the packing station.

In all, Dyson Farms purchased 36,000 English acres. In Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Somerset they focus on beef and mutton. In their 29,000 Lincolnshire acres, everything is arable, mostly wheat, barley, peas and strawberries. It cost £400m to buy the land and £120m so far for improvements.

There’s literally no one else in Britain who could operate on this scale, but that doesn’t mean Dyson’s example is a rich man’s folly, unrelated to real farming. Just as Jeremy Clarkson did farmers a service by showing the public the problems they face, Sir James gives them hope by showing that British food production can have a bright technological future.

“The romantic in me wants to save, protect and nurture as much English farmland as possible,” he wrote; the entrepreneur in him believes that this is compatible with profit. He wants to make agriculture less dependent on the middleman, less vulnerable to the power of supermarkets, more willing to develop its own brands and sell them directly.

Dyson’s approach is radically different from the trend of most public policy. The government now insists that farmers receive what it calls “public money for public goods”.

These goods are defined as non-agricultural. Huge lobby groups, the RSPB and the National Trust, who also own large tracts of land, want rewilding, ‘habitat restored’, allowing rivers to return to ‘a more natural state’ etc. The RSPB’s slogan ‘Giving Nature a Home’ is obediently echoed by Defra, which fails to properly recognize that agriculture is itself a home for nature. The new incentives for farmers and landowners will indeed penalize food production.

While concern for the environment is laudable, it’s a strange idea that food production isn’t a public good. Civilization only emerged when food production reached reasonable sophistication and safety. It would collapse if these were seriously mined. Food (and water) are truly the first of all public goods, the sine qua non.

We know from the high quality of much of our land and the beneficial results of our agricultural revolution that Britain – especially England – can produce food very well. Hence all those old jokes about roast beef and those sheaves of corn proudly decorating so many pubs and other buildings.

Ours was the first generally well-fed population in history. What makes us suppose that we can drop that and rely on the rest of the world? Even the most ardent student of the habitat of the Natterjack Toad or the Shrill Carder Bee still needs his lunch.

If the land is well suited for food production, it is moral to use it for this purpose. It might even, under certain circumstances, be immoral not to do so. Why is it good to harness the natural power of wind and sun to produce energy, but frowned upon to reap the natural rewards of our fertile little patch of land?

To do this successfully requires breeding. In modern times, this in turn requires science and technology. Using drones and computer mapping, marsh harrier nests in Dyson’s fields can be identified and circumvented. One of the best ways to attack crop pests on Dyson estates is to spray them with tiny mites that kill them rather than chemicals. Pollination that farms monitor in order to improve crop yields.

In his famous dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined “animal husbandry” in three ways: “Tillage; way of cultivating the land”, “economy; frugality; parsimony” and “care of domestic affairs”. It’s a useful trio. It makes the connection to agriculture, emphasizes the good economic use of what you have, and reminds you that the work begins at home. The Dyson breeding model is the 21st century version of this 18th century formulation.

The modern environmental movement is, in part, a justifiable reaction to humanity’s abuse of power over nature. Too often, however, he draws the impossible conclusion that human beings must simply retire altogether – or even, in the most extreme version, drop dead.

Paradoxically, such attitudes only flourish in countries so rich that they assume their survival is automatic. Just as the West’s victory in the Cold War lulled it into believing that threats to the free way of life were gone forever, our globalized ability to increase material prosperity has led us to believe that all goods, including food, may just keep coming.

The decline in the sense of threat has been accompanied by a lack of security vigilance. What need for military defense, or local fossil fuel supplies, or growing our own food, if we thought what we needed would always be available somewhere?

During this century, there have been repeated shocks to this complacency. The events of September 11, 2001 showed that low-tech terrorism could hit the world’s greatest power hard. The financial crash of 2008-2009 led us to save our banks, rather than the other way around. The rise of China has shown how weak and easy to infiltrate our elite institutions have become.

In trade and industry, the EU’s appealing notion of ‘just-in-time’ supply chains has only proven effective if international relations are in good shape. The current energy crisis, caused in part by post-Covid supply issues and in part by punitive net zero requirements, reveals how we have thrown away our old energy security.

We will suffer a similar shock if we turn away from producing our own food. It won’t be much fun watching reintroduced beavers or wolves if we don’t know where our next meal is coming from.

“I hate grants,” says Sir James Dyson. He thinks they always distort business decisions. But if our government only subsidizes environmentalism and competing countries continue to subsidize agricultural production, UK food producers are stuffed. In his memoirs, he ends his chapter on agriculture thus: “I simply cannot bear to think that English agriculture follows the same path as British industry.