It comes down to the meaning of that word, “sustainable.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sustainable” means “to endure without failure.” So if we desire a form of farming that is “sustainable,” then that is what it must be capable of doing – of enduring in the long term without failing – failing in itself and failing the environment upon which it depends.

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to launch this conference. I am particularly grateful to the First Minister for joining me today. As some of you may know by now, I felt compelled to lead a coalition of charities to save Dumfries House for the Nation in 2007. I felt there was too much here to be lost and too big an opportunity to help regenerate this important region. Having just spent my second night here, I am now sure that it was a worthwhile thing to do. Already the house has been open to the public and, all being well, the major part of the refurbishment is about to be completed next year. But with the help of people like Morrisons I am convinced that we can also now really make a considerable difference to what happens beyond the house.

Bringing back to life such an important historic house and preserving the beauty, art and craftsmanship of its contents is one thing, but I felt that the land around the house could also act as a powerful catalyst for the regeneration of the whole area. That is why my Trust is setting up an events business. It also plans to build a hotel, create a centre of excellence for skills training and to develop a new mixed-use urban extension to Cumnock. But integral to all of this is the restoration of the farm.

When we took it over the farm was in a very dilapidated state. We were starting completely from scratch. So I cannot tell you how grateful I was that Morrisons stepped forward with its immensely generous investment. Their support has already made a tremendous difference – which you will actually be able to taste later when you enjoy some of the farm’s first meat and produce.

If a company decides to associate itself with one of my projects, it probably means it will be scrutinised by more than just its shareholders – and it certainly will in this case. My hope is that this farm becomes a model that could be studied by the farming sector, by academia and by the press, who will eventually find here an example they cannot so easily dismiss. Created amid the pressures of the commercial world, it will demonstrate what it really means when we talk about “sustainable agriculture.” And if you don’t mind, here I will just put you to the test.

As I grow older, I find I become more exacting! I am afraid that those who are generous enough to donate to such projects also find themselves having to combine their generosity with a vision that will make a sustainable difference in the long term. Deciding to hold this conference here on “commercially viable, sustainable farming” is a demonstration that Morrisons is one of those companies which is moving in the right direction. But I want to make it quite clear before you embark on your deliberations today what needs to change if we are to create a truly sustainable form of farming. 

I am more than aware that Morrisons operates in a highly competitive market, and that when they considered investing in the farm they had to weigh up whether this project would be commercially viable, but there is always a danger here that things can become a bit muddled. It is as if, on the one hand, we have the hope that a farming system could be “sustainable” and on the other, that there is a system that is “commercial.” They are discussed as if they are two separate things and it is a distinction that haunts any debate about sustainable farming.

I certainly hope that it does at your conference today, but in this case so that you can help to dismantle this increasingly awkward blind spot in our thinking. It prompts me to ask the question that not everybody particularly wants to answer.

It comes down to the meaning of that word, “sustainable.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sustainable” means “to endure without failure.” So if we desire a form of farming that is “sustainable,” then that is what it must be capable of doing – of enduring in the long term without failing – failing in itself and failing the environment upon which it depends. The two are interlinked.

Just a year after my bid to save this marvellous house, four hundred scientists from around the world produced a remarkable report for the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They called it, rather succinctly, “The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” and fifty-eight countries, including the United Kingdom, accepted its findings.

It concluded that, as the population increases and as the impact of climate change grows ever more severe, the way the world grows the majority of its food will have to change radically if we are to avoid social and environmental collapse. It called for investment in the sorts of sustainable approaches that conserve the Earth's precious resources – those approaches that employ organic and low input systems; that are dramatically less dependent upon fossil fuels; that strengthen the stock of increasingly rare breeds which are often naturally suited to their local conditions and therefore more resistant to local pests. And the report offered a startling conclusion. It said that continuing to focus on production alone will undermine agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet. It concluded, and I quote, “business as usual is no longer an option.”

In effect it was repeating what I have been saying for many years now – that you cannot have any “commercial” farming unless you consider the viability of Nature’s own economy and unless you pay proper attention to the health of her ecosystems.

So far, we have enjoyed the considerable luxury of ignoring these things. We have tended to believe that many of Nature’s services are free and that it is quite possible for us to continue operating forever in what is an essentially fragmented, and very short-term way. Thus we do not work in a symbiotic relationship with Nature, even though everything else in Nature’s system does. But until we do, I’m afraid it does not matter how many plaudits you might receive for apparently being green. If the conventional approach contributes to the failure of the entire system upon which it depends, then it is not a system which is “sustainable” in the long term – and, therefore, not “commercially viable” either… in the long term.

I hope you see my point. The conventional approach which dominates today will simply not be possible, let alone “commercial,” if it continues to contribute to the failure of the Earth’s ecology and her vital life-support systems. It is not a sustainable approach. And lest you need reminding, let me quickly point out what sustainable farming is not.

It is not dependent upon the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. Sustainable farming does not rely upon artificial fertilizers and growth-promoters, nor the prophylactic use of antibiotics. It does not create vast monocultures and treat animals like machines by using industrial rearing systems. It does not drink the Earth dry, deplete the soil nor drown streams with oxygen-sucking run-off.

On the contrary, sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire eco-system by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply and in the wildlife – the birds, insects and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of creating effective water catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change. To do this it must be a mixed approach. One where animal waste is recycled and organic waste is composted to build the soil’s fertility. One where antibiotics are used on animals to treat illnesses, not deployed in blanket-like doses in a bid to prevent them; and where those animals are fed on grass-based regimes as Nature intended. Ultimately it is an approach that gives back to Nature as much as it takes out and recognizes that there are necessary limits to what the Earth can do. Equally it recognises the need for producers to receive a reasonable price for their labours above the price of production.

The question you address today lies at the heart of the problems we face. The experts tell me that the demand for food is set to rise by 50 per cent by 2030. By then, somehow, we will also have to find 30 per cent more water and 45 per cent more energy. However, given that the amount of water circulating on this planet is finite and that for every nine barrels of oil we use at the moment it appears we are only managing to discover around one barrel of readily available oil, the mathematics do not add up. We have to come up with a better way of producing our food that maintains the health of the Earth's natural systems so that we work much more closely with them, rather than so carelessly despite them. And, because we will have to do so in a commercial environment hounded by the spiralling costs of a diminishing oil supply, it would pay us to do this pretty quickly – now, rather than later, when it may be too late.

So, if I might end by really throwing the gauntlet down; the key to doing that, I suggest, is very much what the UN and World Bank’s report says has to happen. Brave companies like Morrisons might look at expanding sustainable farming – or, if you prefer, “organic” farming – so that it becomes the norm and therefore less expensive. If they did this, then I have no doubt that they would be laying down the foundations of a truly sustainable form of commercial farming.

I shall leave you with that thought and that challenge, and wish you a very productive discussion – in my fortuitous absence!