Ian Bell OBE reflects on the future of our country’s self-sufficiency.
The Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill in the Lower House poses more questions than answers but it confirms the Secretary of State’s direction of travel. Since Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, his consultation ‘Health and Harmony’ and now the Agriculture Bill, one certainty is that any farm support is going to focus on public goods and I find it incredible that ‘food’ is not considered to be a public good.
For the first time in forty-five years the overall amount of money dedicated for farm support will be decided by HM Treasury,not the European Commission, through the Common Agricultural Policy. Whatever your views about our European partners, the vociferous and sometime rebellious nature of the French and German farmers have helped the UK farmer reach a more advantageous deal. Now we are on our own arguing around the cabinet table with Health, Education, Defence and other departments. Although the white paper suggests that the Basic Payment Scheme will have a seven-year taper, it is unprecedented for a government to commit funding beyond the length of a Parliament and will be subject to spending reviews. The prospect of drawing down seven years of payments at the outset could be quite appealing.
Attending a seminar hosted by the Dutch Ambassador to the UK and Promar International we debated what was a ‘public good’. We covered water, carbon, biodiversity, energy, leisure, obesity, education but what wasn’t discussed was the one thing that everyone in the country should be concerned about – food!
I do have some sympathy with one aspect of the Secretary of State’s strategy and that is we must look after our soils. The advent of Oilseed Rape in the seventies gave us a break crop that was profitable. On many heavy clay soils we have been growing wheat and oilseed rape back-to-back and in doing so we now have uncontrollable levels of blackgrass. The under-drainage schemes we put in with funding from the EU Farm and Horticultural Scheme are breaking down and organic matter levels are abysmal. Whilst I agree we must embrace science, we should also not forget history and remember why Viscount Townshend invented the ‘Norfolk 4-Course Rotation’ in the 18th Century.
The tragedy of the Foot and Mouth Epidemic in 2001 led to the demise of the MAFF – the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the dawning of DEFRA – the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In the Dutch elections last November, the new coalition government re-instated a dedicated Ministry of Agriculture with its own Minister. Should we be looking for a similar change here? Can DEFRA, as a department, deal fairly with the conflicts of delivering public goods and producing food or is everyone content to allow our level of self-sufficiency in food to fall to 50% or even lower?
I’d be interested to hear your views. You can call us or email me – I’d love to tell you about the livestock and arable farmers we’re helping to grow, develop and diversify as they deal with some of these issues.
by Ian Bell OBE, Head of Farm & Rural Engagement