I was privileged to be asked to take part in an interview by Tim Hopkins of the Land App for his Land Management 2.0 series recently. After the interview I received a very interesting question from a member of the audience which had missed the chairman’s cut during the interview itself. It came from Emma Storey who is a land agent on the Rhug Estate in North Wales. This was Emma’s question and she has kindly agreed that I can publish an extract from our correspondence here.
“We exist in an economy that is regulated by prices, would you agree that this can only allow for focus on present day demands and cannot consider future needs? Alternative economies regulated by central government have often failed, do you think that ‘big data’ and AI could make the difference? Could we then see a successfully regulated economy that is able to consider the future?”
I had to break the answer down into its parts to answer it. Here it is:
“Your question would work well as an exam question or essay title! Taking elements in turn:
“We exist in an economy that is regulated by prices, would you agree that this can only allow for focus on present day demands and cannot consider future needs?
Historically this has been a central part of the problem. Long term costs are not recognised in market pricing. They are often external to the vendor, ie somebody else picks up the bill for pollution or other side effects; or there is an erosion of capital which is not understood, appreciated or costed – the loss of soil for example.
The wider acceptance of wider environmental economic appraisal and the costing or valuation of nature has started to extend our understanding considerably. It is however an area which is complex and hard to understand, the resulting ‘values’ are difficult to relate to tangible concepts like cash and sale prices and there is still a fundamental controversy over whether we should attempt to place a value on nature. The idea remains anathema to some people but on the other hand there is a pragmatic view that money is the language of politicians and big business, and big figures will get their attention.
Alternative economies regulated by central government have often failed, do you think that ‘big data’ and AI could make the difference?
I don’t think that big data and AI will make any difference on their own. Both are passive in nature and like any factor of production need management, direction and flair to be put to use (good or bad ….). I’m not sure that we are looking at an alternative economy either in the way that communism is different from capitalism for example. What governments can do is to set baselines through regulations and their enforcement – the polluter pays principle; and provide incentives. The more obvious examples of the latter might be grants, but tax breaks, access to government contracts and so on. Less directly the encouragement of research, dissemination of knowledge and similar initiatives are also very powerful. More subtly and over a longer period governments can also shift attitudes, for example seat belts, drink driving, smoking, crash helmets. In my very much younger days nobody cared much about wearing seat belts, driving after a few drinks, smoking was a common habit and crash helmets on motorbikes, let alone push bikes, were regarded by some as being for softies.
Let us assume for a moment that government has made some regulations, provided some incentives and undertaken some attitude shifting. Will consumers follow this and pay more for food which they know has been sourced responsibly? Some will but probably not even in a country where food is a small proportion of typical household expenditure. But will business pressure achieve the results – large corporations under increasing pressure to behave responsibly? This might well achieve more than reliance on individual consumer purchasing decisions alone. It might look as I have focussed solely on food production in making the points in this paragraph, but I don’t think we can consider the environment without considering food production – after all food production is an ecosystem service and requires natural capital to function. If our actions lead to the production of less food in the UK then we will have outsourced some of the problems associated with food production to other regions of the world: can Kenya really afford to send us all the water it does in fresh vegetables, plants and cut flowers?
This in turn takes us to the terms on which we procure food, which itself in turn brings us to international trade. I attended an IAgM webinar yesterday about international food trade, and Nick von Westenholz of the NFU articulated very lucidly the tensions between competitive productivity, food security and the payment of public money for public goods. OUr trade policy is more or less about being able to compete in world markets – can farmers win the trade competition in international markets and on what terms? Practically, farming tends to take a lower priority in international trade talks than say financial services, high value manufacturing, infrastructure and high value professional services.
Could we then see a successfully regulated economy that is able to consider the future?”
Trying to end on a positive note, our understanding of these issues has probably never been better. There is a sense of urgency about climate change and the erosion of natural capital. We have some ideas of tools that might work. There has been a lot of consensus building. Individually the challenge will be how to make sense of this and how to find new routes to prosperity which are adequate for our needs without exceeding our capacity to provide for them. Expectations and demands may have to be modified – I mean reduced – in a number of cases and this in particular will take courage by our leaders.
Ramblings complete, QED!
I hope my comments will be useful or interesting.”
The interview itself is on YouTube at this link: https://youtu.be/-Ue0P1QDIFA
With thanks to Emma Storey for her permission to share this exchange and to Tim Hopkins of Land Management 2.0 and Land App for inviting me to take part in his series of interviews.