September 10, 2016
The interview - Clifford Spencer
In your livestock farming period, what type of animals did you farm and what were your key motivations at that time?
In my lifetime my family farmed every form of livestock but pigs. However, I was taught by the foremost pig-breeding expert in the UK at university, thus making up for that shortcoming. The reason pigs were excluded from our enterprises was my grandfather suffered overwhelming loss due to the ravages of Swine Fever and this experience put my late father off farming the animal.
We produced everything from the winning turkey at the UK national poultry show and which subsequently went on to provide Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas dinner on more than one occasion, to high-quality milk, eggs, specialist sheep with highly productive and out of season production attributes to working actively in artificial insemination in cattle in its early days in the 1950s and 1960s in my teenage years.
What have you done in the area of crop production and research and why did you focus on this area of activity?
In the late 1960s and 1970s our farm was a frequent entrant across the Atlantic Ocean in the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair based in Toronto where we ultimately secured the Supreme Champion title for a winter wheat crop produced on our farm. I have also broken various yield and quality records in cereal, pulse and oilseed crops throughout my active farming career.
I have personally grown some 60 species of plants whilst being involved in leading on-farm research work with many industrial and academic partners for over 30 years, for example the first introduction of hybrid cereals to the UK with Shell in the 1980s and hybrid oilseeds in the 1990s. I chaired the pulse panel at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany helping select the best varieties of peas and beans for UK farmers as well as serving on the levy panel at the Processors and Growers Research Organisation, where this charge on all UK pulse growers helped provide leading research for these crops.
I was also a leading nucleus seed producer for an extensive range of crops and indeed our business was UK leading in that respect. Our seed was exported around the world due to its quality and purity.
How do your experiences in livestock and cropping impact the work you do today?
I took over the family farm at a very early age and indeed ended my university education prematurely due to my late father’s ill health. As he said at the time he was not retired but just plain tired! That baptism of fire in my teens has thoroughly grounded me in the need for practical commercial thinking when assessing global farming systems. This is in particular regard to facilitating change at farm level whatever the objective whether that’s soil health, animal welfare, broad ecosystem/environmental factors, human diet & health, climate change or production performance and efficiency.
How did you become involved in international aspects to your business and to the work that you are now doing?
Apart from food and seed supply, with the advent of the 1990s I became heavily involved in producing advanced medical and industrial crop seeds and fibres which attracted increasing media attention.
Areas from the production of nervonic acid (a human acid also produced in a plant) used to mend nerve sheaths in humans through to producing industrial slip agents from oilseed plants and further on to providing lightweight crop fibres from crops such as flax and hemp for advanced aircraft construction (as well as oil for advanced nutrition) were all in my practical sphere of feedstock crop production.
From this came interest from the United Nations and the opportunity to travel extensively advising at the highest level on agriculture and bioenergy and on a global basis for over a decade.
Can you explain in a little more detail about the positions you hold today, the work you do with international bodies and how this might impact the supply of food to those in most need?
I am the Goodwill Ambassador of the African Union (AU) with special responsibility for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). I have also been involved in high-level support of the EU’s Climate Key Innovation Centres programme overseen by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, for which I have also acted as a project assessor.
I was also variously a business adviser to a multi-national bank, a national farm judge, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) project assessor and a featured director of the Institute of Directors. I have also been lucky enough to experience the personal company and views of various national leaders and have presented in the UK House of Lords.
You’re a trustee and chairman of the newly formed Aquaculture Without Frontiers (UK) CIO charity which represents ‘Milling4Life’. Can you explain as Chairman of the Board what the objectives are for the milling industry?
This new and what I believe will become an industry leading charity is dedicated to the promotion and adoption of sound food and feed milling processes and storage technology in developing countries.
This is for the benefit of the public good and the overall improvement of nutrition in the diets of individuals in both developing and transitional countries. I see, for instance, a strong role in its core activity to providing invaluable assistance to the African continent’s current drive to radically alter its agricultural output and feed its own peoples and stimulate strong and enduring economic growth for the benefit of its citizens.