Monday, July 27, 2015

Demand growth for food likely to slow

Reports from the European Commission suggest that the growth in demand for food is likely to slow down due to declining population growth and more stabilisation in consumption per capita: Long-term trends

Despite slowing economic growth, China is likely to remain the main target for EU agri-food exports.

All this implies tighter export markets which are likely to restrain prices and make things more difficult for EU farmers.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Crop diversification measures have limited impact on farm income

The controversial crop diversification measures introduced in the last CAP reform have had a limited impact on farm income according to a new study: Crop diversification

However, individual farms may have been more substantially affected with some experiencing an income loss of as much as 10 per cent. However, it should be noted that only 38 per cent are farms are affected by the measure.

The NFU has complained about it a great deal in the UK and these figures question whether the measures are having much impact on their members. However, it may be that what was resented was what seen as an unnecessary intervention in farm level decision-making rather than any financial impacts.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

The dairy farming crisis

The chairman of the NFU's south-west dairy board, Mark Oliver, has announced that he is selling his herd and quitting agriculture. He has seen the milk price he receives from his dairy fall from 33-34p a litre a year ago to 25p a litre today, with the prospect of further drops. The break even point is thought to be around 28p a litre, although this can vary by farm.

The price farmers receive does vary considerably. A number of big supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose pay an agreed amount above the cost of production. This would work out at around 32p a litre. However, fewer than 15 per cent of farmers have the protection of these contracts. Typically, prices in the UK have dropped by 25 per cent over the past year, producing a price of around 20p a litre, although some farmers receive even less.

The underlying drivers are supply and demand. Global milk production is rising by 5 per cent a year while demand is growing by just 2 per cent. The average cow in England and Wales produced 14 per cent more milk in 2013 than a decade earlier.

China's economic slowdown has reduced its demand while Russia imposed a ban on EU dairy products last year. The two countries account for not far short of a third of globally traded dairy products, so have had a significant impact on prices.

Chinese imports have jumped 14 times in the last decade. This is, of course, from a low base with milk and cheese being relatively new to the diet.

The number of dairy farmers in England and Wales has dropped by half over the past 12 years to just under 10,000. However, this means that the remaining farmers have better economies of scale, are generally more efficient and better able to compete internationally.

It's not all doom and gloom in the long run. The International Farm Comparison Network reckons that the world will need 30 per cent more milk by 2024. The demand would come from population growth and per capita dairy consumption rising by 14 per cent.

The Middle East and North Africa have seen rapid expansion of their dairy markets. While world trade of dairy products has doubled in the last decade, Middle Eastern imports have trebled and Maghreb countries have seen a 3.5 times rise. One of the main attractions of the region is the scope for processed dairy products such as cheese. In Asia the market has been mainly focused on milk and powdered milk.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

What would British withdrawal from the EU imply for British farm policy?

Farmers are uncertain what impact a British exit from the European Union would have on their businesses. This is not surprising as so far there has been little systematic exploration of these issues, says the Farmer-Scientist Network which has been set up by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.

The Farmer-Scientist Network is based at the Great Yorkshire Showground, and has assembled a working party of CAP experts from economics, law and political science chaired by Professor Wyn Grant of Warwick University. North Yorkshire farmer, Bill Cowling, who is best known as the Honorary Show Director of the Great Yorkshire Show, is a working party member and is helping to identify the issues that concern farmers in particular.

He comments: “The impact of a possible withdrawal from the EU cannot be under estimated. The Yorkshire Agricultural Society was established to drive forward developments in farming, and it is anticipated that this Network will encourage a more informed debate in the event of a referendum.”

The Network has raised the point that Britain would be outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and would have to devise its own agricultural policy. The shape of that policy would, however, be influenced by the form that the relationship with the EU took after exit and obligations under the international trade regime as Britain would remain a member of the World Trade Organisation.

Over the next few months the working party will examine:

  • Financial support for farmers post exit
  • The tariff regime that would be followed outside the EU
  • What would happen to environmental regulations
  • The availability of migrant labour

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Friday, April 03, 2015

The productivity puzzle

Britain's recent poor productivity performance, which necessarily has an effect on real wages, is the issue that dares not speak its name in the general election. It doesn't reflect well on the Coalition Government, but Labour has not pushed the issue, perhaps because they have no answers.

Britain's record in agricultural productivity has been poor. Between 1900 and 1984, yields of wheat trebled from one tonne to three tonnes an acre. Since then, although there was some improvement in the late 1990s, productivity has more or less flat lined.

Using USDA and OECD data, England ranks seventh out of eight countries on ratio of farm outputs to inputs by value (excluding subsidies). The World Bank calculates that the country produces less cereal per hectare of harvested and than Belgium, France, Germany or the Netherlands.

To put it another way, if we start with a 1990 index of 100, Britain's agricultural productivity was around 118 in 2011. The US was on over 140, the Netherlands and Germany in the 170s, New Zealand near 220 and Denmark over 220.

The high price of agricultural land in Britain doesn't help. It's a popular, lightly taxed investment asset, also popular for sporting and lifestyle purposes. Its steep rise in value absorbs funds that might otherwise be used for investment.

There has also been a sharp fall in applied research and development with a number of public research institutes wound up in the 1980s. Over the past two decades the country's spending on agricultural R & D has fallen by an average of 6 per cent in real terms.

The UK did launch an agri-tech strategy in 2013 with cross-party support, but it is open to question whether the £160m allocated to it is enough or whether it has come too late.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Balls in less farm subsidies shock

There was what I found to be a rather surprising exchange on agricultural policy at the end of the questioning of Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor on Sky this afternoon. Someone from the farming industry asked him about declining self-sufficiency in UK agriculture, no doubt him expecting to say that targets to increase it should be set. The NFU has just tweeted that she is one of their members.

Instead he said that he believed in international trade and that this gave consumers a wider choice of products in the supermarkets and this kept prices down for consumers. He was also critical of the CAP, although that is standard for UK politicians.

He was then asked by the facilitator whether he favoured more farm subsidies or less and he unequivocally answered, 'Less'.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Campaigning for farming and food in the general election

The general election is an opportunity for farming and food issues to be debated and the National Farmers' Union is fully entitled to brief its members with questions to be asked of candidates. Indeed, the NFU has posed very interesting questions about any referendum on membership of the EU and what the implications of 'Brexit' might be for British agriculture, an issue that requires more systematic attention and exploration.

What I think is less helpful is any suggestion that we need self-sufficiency targets which can all too easily smack of Soviet central planning. The NFU has warned that by 2080 less than half the nation's food needs will be met by UK farming. This date is a long way away and it is not clear whether this is a figure for temperate foodstuffs or whether it includes tropical products like the ever popular banana.

The NFU's report entitled Backing British Farming in a Volatile World said that 85 per cent of consumers wanted to see supermarkets selling food from British farms. This is a bit like asking people whether they are in favour of motherhood and apple pie.

There are food security issues to be discussed, but as Tim Benton of Leeds University, the UK's global food security champion, commented: 'It remains an "open question" as to what the optimal level of self-sufficiency should be.' I would argue that there is no methodology that can tell us, given all the uncertainties. That may, of course, represent a case for being cautious, but I don't think that target figures are the right way forward.

The NFU claims that more than half the income of an 'average' farm comes from single farm payments (soon to be the basic payment). This suggests an over dependence on subsidy, but the NFU says they are needed to protect against price volatility. What would perhaps help more is a supermarkets ombudsman with more powers and a staff of more than three to ensure more of a level playing field. But then governments like low food prices.

You can read the NFU report here: Backing British Farming

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