Monday, May 24, 2010

Cows account for 4 per cent of greenhouse gases

The urgent need for a stronger climate change dimension to the CAP is emphasised by a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which is a UN agnecy. If one takes account of everything from nomadic herds to processing plants, milk production accounts for 2.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This rises to 4 per cent when meat processed from the dairy industry is added in.

Methane contributes most to the global warming impact of milk, accounting for 54 per cent of emissions. Nitrous oxide accounts for 27 per cent of emissions in developing countrues and 38 per cent in developing countries.

You can find the full report here: FAO

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spel(l)ing it out

New Defra supremo Caroline Spelman went down well at her first Farm Council as she has a fluent command of French and German which facilitated informal discussions with ministers. She has built up informal links with German agriculture minister Isle Aigner on the issue of lighter regulation and is planning a bilateral meeting with French minister Bruno le Maire.

She is taking a relatively reformist stance on CAP, noting that there are four constituencies to be satisfied. She told Farmers Weekly 'Farmers need a good deal from CAP reform. So, too, do consumers, taxpayers and the environment. It is a four-pronged approach to how we reform the CAP.'

Rumours have been circulating that Defra will be abolished or rebadged and substantially restructured. However, the minister said: 'I am not a huge fan of big structural change. In my experience, messing around with structures can end up costing money as well as saving money. It is not my top priority.'

Reading the farming press one gets the sense that farmers have realised that it is not bonanza time, particularly given the fiscal constraints. Cost and responsibility sharing on animal health is still very much on the agenda and the commitment on a bovine TB cull is very qualified.

All four Defra ministers have strong farming connections which is how the Conservatives tend to recruit their ministers and there are no Lib Dems in the department, somewhat surprising given their rural focus. However, this is not necessarily a MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture) in all but name. As far as CAP reform is concerned, the personnel may have changed, but British interests in value for money have not. Indeed, they are likely to be emphasised even more.

Investors pile into farmland

As Britain's Con-Lib government threatens a big hike in capital gains tax, investors are piling into farms despite the fact that a typical yield on capital in the sector is only 2 per cent (although that is more than you would receive from many deposit accounts).

According to Strutt and Parker farmland in the UK has risen in price from an average of £5,260 per acre at the beginning of the year to £6,233 this month, an increase of 18 per cent. Prices have already topped those achieved when the market peak in 2006, but annual growth of about 5 to 6 per cent until 2015 is still expected.

Farmland has always been seen as a safe haven at a time of economic volatility, a kind of gold with cashflow. There are also capital gains and tax benefits. Agricultural property relief means that all of the land, as well as a portion of the farmhouse, is exempt from inheritance tax after two years, provided the owner farms the land or has a farming contract in place based on shared profit. You can also offset farm losses against other income.

The problem is that it is difficult to get a foothold in farming unless you inherit or become a farm manager. Tenancies don't come up that often and local authority estates which were a traditional entry route are being sold off. In any case, many of these units were not viable without an off farm income, although that is also true of many owned and tenanted farms.

The farm population is an ageing one and the industry needs younger people to come in other than through the inheritance route, valuable though that is in providing a sense of 'trusteeship' of the land. When my nephew takes over from his dad, he will be the eighth generation to farm in a very beautiful part of Cymru, although three formerly separate farms have now been combined into one big property.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lobbying links

Questions are being raised in some quarters about links Defra secretary of state Carloline Spelman has had with the lobbying industry. Of course, it is not unknown for politicians in opposition to have such links or to undertake business roles and Defra has made it clear that everything will be done in compliance with the ministerial code. Read more here: Lobbying

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Productionist emphasis at Defra

The productionist emphasis at Defra continues with junior ministerial appointments: Defra . Jim Paice, the Minister of State, was substantially involved in the Young Farmers' movement and has been connected with farming all his life. The 'Pussy', Richard Benyon, is MP for Newbury and is stated to be a local farmer. (As it so happens, I had lunch in the constituency on Sunday and my enquiries suggest that he is more a country landowner than a farmer, not that there is anything wrong that: they often tend to have stronger conservationist instincts).

However, Lord Taylor of Holbeach has not become the Lords minister as expected, the post going to Lord Henley.

The ministerial team would thus be an all Conservative one. However, I am uncertain what is happening to the fisheries portfolio and there were rumours that this was destined to be occupied by the Lib Dem MP for the west of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, Andrew George.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sweet appointment at Defra

Caroline Spelman is the new secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As it so happens, I was with some Defra civil servants yesterday and they were intrigued about what the outcome might be.

Nick Herbert was the shadow spokesperson, but I was not greatly impressed by some of his comments: indeed, I even thought of writing to him and offering some advice! There was speculation that a Lib Dem might get the post and it has been suggested that one of the junior posts in the department will go to the Lib Dems.

Caroline Spelman has a background with big sugar. She worked for the British Sugar Corporation and held the sugar commodities post at NFU. She also worked for the International Federation of Beet Growers in Paris. I have had some dealings with big sugar myself and I know they are serious players.

Her appointment will no doubt be welcomed by the barley barons in East Anglia and the NFU. Farmers felt that Defra until Labour had become the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Activity. I do think that there are some issues on which they have legitimate grievances, for example the failures of the Rural Payments Agency and policy paralysis on bovine TB.

Nevertheless, I would appeal to the new ministerial team not to shift policy too far in a productionist direction and neglect environmental considerations. A good record on the environment is ultimately important for the relationship between the farmer and the consumer.

I know that many individual farmers undertake excellent initiatives on conservation and environmental protection. The typical farmer still has a real dedication to his calling and sees himself or herself as a 'trustee' of their farm. This is not always sufficiently acknowledged. But it does need a supportive policy framework to sustain it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

NFU sets out ideas on CAP debate

The National Farmers' Union has published a major policy document setting out their ideas on the future of the CAP: NFU

The NFU has been working on this policy statement for some time and as one would expect it is a strategically oriented and sophisticated analysis. Clearly it takes account of the perspectives of farmers, but it is also politically realistic in terms of what can be achieved.

I don't agree with everything that is contained in the document, but it also contains a number of sensible and well thought through suggestions that provide a positive contribution to what is a very important debate.

As time allows over the next few weeks, I will through the document highlighting some of the major elements of the analysis provided and suggesting points of agreement and difference.