Farming feature: Providing the means to an end
- Credit: Archant
NOW that EU leaders have agreed a reduced budget for the next seven years including reduced spending on agriculture, the current overdue reform of the CAP can be completed. But will it really be reform or simply an extension of the same protectionist approach without addressing the challenges of the future?
We need to change: If we are to feed a world of over nine billion people with the variety of food and more sophisticated diet which they increasingly demand then it is going to take more than just a massive increase in production. It needs a radical change in attitude by politicians, NGOs and many members of the public.
There are those who do not believe change is necessary: who believe all the UK’s farmers should continue to produce food traditionally and reject the advances of science and technology. They fail to understand that without subsidy such systems can only survive if consumers are willing to pay considerably more for the product when sitting next to it on the supermarket shelf is a similar but cheaper product from abroad. A few will but most people will not. The result of such a system would be a massive increase in imports and more reliance on global supply just when it is under pressure from elsewhere. Equally important is that we would simply be putting even more pressure on other peoples’ environment as more intensive production switched elsewhere.
Others argue that if we eliminate waste we will not need to produce any more food. A recent report suggested that up to half of all food is wasted whether by excessive buying in supermarkets or pests and disease in the developing world. This waste must be reduced but it is putting hope above common sense to expect it to be eliminated altogether. Just look at this year’s crops rotting in the fields because of flooding!
But it is not just on the farm where production has changed. The recent furore over horsemeat in burgers is primarily about traceability but it also highlights the industrialisation of food processing and the constant drive to force down costs. Last year the EU made a ruling about what is termed mechanically recovered meat; those last scraps of meat which cannot be removed from bones manually but are recovered by high pressure hose, ground down into paste and then used in sausages and pies. All in the name of cost reduction.
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The reason we can now eat British strawberries for many months is because we have mastered the art of growing them under polytunnels. We produce cheap chicken because they are kept in very large modern buildings. Potatoes, onions, apples and many other products require huge stores to keep them fresh throughout the year. There are many other examples but the common thread is that all these are the results of consumer demand.
And yet, farmers are facing difficulty in adapting. Planning permission for polytunnels or large farm building is often difficult to come by. For years the concept of genetically modified organisms has been fundamental to some advances in healthcare. Insulin for diabetics is created from a genetically modified organism and nobody complains yet use the same science to create a crop which is naturally resistant to an insect pest and out come all the doomsayers. Even more controversial is animal welfare where the public quite rightly demand that farm animals are kept to high standards yet when they become consumers they rarely are willing to pay the extra costs that are incurred. The decline in British pig production over the last 20 years is in part for this reason.
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Never was a saying more apt than ‘you cannot have your cake and eat it’. In other words if you will the end (increased food production and a reduction in subsidy) you have to will the means. Britain’s farmers can deliver the majority of our needs but not unless they have the means to do so. For decades they have been criticised for living on subsidy. Now that subsidy is quite rightly reducing and is not linked to production we must allow them to operate in the commercial world. Of course there must be constraints but we must recognise the reality of modern food production.
Negotiating the CAP for the next seven years occupied a lot of my time as minister. We inherited a policy that all direct payments to farmers should stop immediately; a policy which was not only potentially disastrous to our own industry but one which had no chance whatsoever of being adopted in the EU. Proclaiming it simply served to exclude the UK from any serious discussion about reform. That is not to say that that public funding should continue forever but it should be ended over a sensible timetable and be done in conjunction with real measures to help the industry adapt. By adopting that more reasoned approach we got back into the debate at Agriculture Council even though many other ministers did not agree.
The decision that the new budget for agriculture will decline year on year should be the incentive for change but I fear there will be many EU agriculture ministers who will still want to use it to prop up literally millions of small farmers in Central and Eastern Europe. It would be far better to set out on a path of restructuring; encouraging many to give up and helping others to invest and become more competitive. The facility for individual Member States to switch money between direct payments and targeted funding for rural development (which includes the environment and grants for investment) will surely end any semblance of a ‘Common’ policy. Yet that is what it is. Whilst there are months of wrangling still to be done it seems clear that the basic principles are set. A reduction in funding should be a stimulus for change, but I fear that the debate will go nowhere and in the run up to the next round in 2020 we will still be having the same old stagnant arguments.