Friday, October 12, 2018

Stakeholders prioritise outcomes over process

The Government has issued a response to the EFRA Committee report on its consultation document on domestic agricultural policy after Brexit: Response

The Government praises itself for the extent of its engagement with stakeholders on the trajectory of policy and certainly there is a lot of interest and concern from many different quarters on its future direction and content. Stakeholders are interested in outcomes not process and what those will be remains to be seen.

Defra states that, 'It is incorrect to say that there have been minimal discussions between Defra and the Treasury over the future funding of the new agricultural policy. We have been in regular contact with HMT at both ministerial and official level.'

Again it is not the regularity and level of contacts that matters, but the content of those contacts. We are now in a period where the end of austerity has been proclaimed alongside continued fiscal responsibility. The reality is that it is politically difficult for the Government to increases taxes, but it has pledged substantial new funding to the NHS before one even starts to think about, for example, the needs of the police and the prison service.

Spending on agriculture is likely to be squeezed over the coming years. Normally reliable sources suggest that the Treasury is happy with the direction of travel of policy towards payments justified by public goods arguments. However, they are not impressed by food security arguments, although they are interested in the possibilities of a new technological revolution.

What is still largely missing is any link between agricultural policy and health policy in relation to issues such as obesity. Healthy eating is an interest of large sections of the population, not least younger voters.

The Government's view is that 'eating healthily is ultimately a consumer choice'. This is true, but that choice can be guided and that is what Public Health England is trying to do, possibly sometimes in too hectoring a tone.

The Government argues, 'We take the view that the market remains the best way to reward the production of good-quality food. Paying farmers to produce healthy food would not necessarily result in the desired outcome of a wider contribution to public health. Farmers may be the wrong target to incentivise consumers to eat healthy food, especially where primary produce travels through the supply chain via food processors and manufacturers before it is turned into the final product that consumers purchase.'

Whilst there is something in these arguments, policy needs to go beyond a reliance on the market mechanism. For example, there is a climate change argument for eating less meat. We need to ensure that there is a good fruit and vegetable supply at an affordable price. Of course, that raises much wider questions about the roles of the state and the market.

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