Cry, the beloved countryside

March 6, 1998

Academics were probably not over-represented among the rural enthusiasts who gathered in London last weekend to complain about the plight of the countryside. But the protesters, making the most of the first Labour government ever to hold a significant number of rural seats, look likely to be rewarded with significant political concessions which ought to affect teaching and research on rural issues.

The changing nature of what happens in the countryside has been acknowledged in the curricula of agricultural colleges and university agriculture departments, where tourism and conservation now feature alongside farming.

But the countryside is changing in more subtle ways than Sunday's protests imply, as Colin Leakey points out in our section on geography and environment books (page ). Future success in the countryside may well depend on smaller-scale, more labour-intensive farming producing higher-value products. This would mark a change of gear from the postwar trend towards bigger farms employing fewer people and producing a more standardised product. But it would also require more highly qualified people with ever-changing skills, engaged in rural lifelong learning, and a research base to match.

At the same time, new countryside practices could undermine the town-dweller's image of the country as a large green hole into which taxes are poured. If unspoilt views or endangered species with valuable genes are being conserved there, the new green economics discussed by David Pearce (page 32.) ought to be able to value them.

The big political question is what the ministry which will oversee this change will look like. Will the ministry of agriculture simply turn into a new ministry of rural affairs? The danger is that it will be subject to "agency capture" by the farming industry, whose political skills have in the past proved superior to those of MAFF ministers and bureaucrats.

Part of the answer is to ensure that the inevitable changes in our countryside are accompanied by an adequate knowledge base. The former Agricultural and Food Research Council still does work on farming, but its new guise as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council signals that priorities are elsewhere.

Now that maximising food output has ceased to be the priority, the Natural Environment Research Council is the obvious lead body for rural science. In addition, the Economic and Social Research Council has long funded work on the topics such as rural poverty and poor public transport that preoccuppied last weekend's marchers.

In the past, these concerns have been dressed up as environmental issues, since the countryside itself was not regarded as a suitable topic for study. But whoever is writing the ESRC and NERC bids for the spending review might find it opportune to ask for more cash to examine the problems of rural life. In addition, freed from the food safety role that it failed to fulfil over BSE and E.coli, the new rural affairs ministry will need a science base and a chief scientist to reflect an interest in economic and social matters as well as science andconservation. A lively research community for the new department to talk to would be a useful bonus as it gets under way.

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