I now realize I have been President of the College for the last thirty years, which makes me feel somewhat ancient, but it also means I have seen some remarkable changes, including the introduction of a much wider range of land management courses, achievement of full University status, and the development of the splendid Rural Innovation Centre – which I visited two years ago.
But some things don’t change. The careers that you are embarking on are as important now as they were for your predecessors when this institution was established in 1845, with my great great great grandfather, Prince Albert, as the first Patron. Then, as now, there was a pressing need to provide the best possible education for the people who were going to look after the land. And whichever aspect of farming or land management you have chosen to specialize in, that is, as the Principal was saying, a huge responsibility.
It is absolutely clear that the most fundamental challenges the world faces over the coming years will need to be solved by those working in agriculture. Feeding an unsustainably growing global population of some nine billion people with limited natural resources, while coping with the inevitable impacts of climate change and, at the same time, sustaining Nature’s capacity to sustain us, will be no mean feat. We are now pushing Nature’s life-support systems so far that they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them. Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing ever more voracious and the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil.
When we talk about agriculture and food production, we are talking about a complex and interrelated system and it is simply not possible to single out just one objective, such as maximizing production, without also ensuring that the system which delivers those increased yields meets society’s other needs. These must surely include the maintenance of public health, the safeguarding of rural employment and small holder farming, the protection of the environment and vital natural ecosystems.
Dealing with such daunting challenges will require a different approach – an approach that puts the protection of natural ecosystems back at the heart of the whole process, so as to see a dramatic improvement in soil health and organic matter and to ensure genuine food security, not to mention long-term human health. It will also require the very best of human ingenuity, dedication and resourcefulness. And that, to me, is why farming and land management can never be ‘just another industry’.
You, ladies and gentlemen, will very soon be acting as custodians, or stewards, of a precious natural asset on which all of humanity depends and taking decisions in your daily lives that will have long-term consequences. Now I know only too well that you will be faced by endless financial and economic pressures pulling you in the opposite direction, but if I could just ask one thing of you, it would be that amidst all the excitement of starting your new jobs you make time to look around you and try to understand the bigger picture. What has happened in the past to shape the land the way it is? Are you looking at a healthy, diverse and resilient ecosystem? And is the balance right between short-term production and long-term health and sustainability? I know those may not be the most obvious things to ask as you start to find your way around, but they might well be among the most important, at the end of the day.
In managing rural assets you will also, of course, be playing important roles in rural communities. And I do hope you will also think hard about this human dimension, because the health of the agricultural sector and the health of what is left of the rural community are directly connected in so many fundamental ways. I expect this is something you all understand very well, but the wider population certainly doesn’t.
For what it's worth, that is why I set up my Countryside Fund five years ago, to raise money to help provide a somewhat more secure future for the most vulnerable people who look after the countryside, as well as to begin to tell a story about where our food actually comes from and who is responsible for producing it. I know that your Students Union has helped raise money for the Fund and I couldn’t be more grateful. It really is an important cause when every part of the agricultural sector is confronted by volatility, uncertainty and un-economic returns, so I am delighted to say that the grants we have given out over the last 5 years have just exceeded £6 million, all helping towards the process of maintaining living, productive, working landscapes that are better able to support resilient local businesses and strong rural communities.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have my warmest congratulations on being awarded your degrees today. Farming sustains life and is the foundation of any healthy civilization, so you have great responsibilities ahead of you, as well as exciting opportunities – as long as you remember to put Nature back at the center of all your thinking and professional activities. Only that way in today's world can we hope to create a genuinely sustainable and durable future on this, we have to remember, our only, miraculous planet. I can only wish you all every possible success in the future.