Thursday, July 31, 2014

Call for major changes to food and farming policy

A coalition of NGOs including the RSPB and the National Trust working with the Centre for Food Research have called for UK food and farming policy to be reoriented around ecosystems and the promotion of healthy food in a report entitled Square Meal.. You can read more about the report and download it here: Square Meal

They state in a press release, 'The organisations involved have joined forces to highlight the overwhelming evidence that demonstrates the need for major changes to national food and farming policy. Square Meal aims to start a collaborative discussion in the run up to next year’s general election and to influence future government policies on these issues. [One suspects that the report is really addressed at a possible Labour Government]. It calls for stronger government leadership in planning the future use of land, food policy, farming and conservation in England and for wider public engagement on issues that affect the whole of society.'

One interesting question is how far these issues are within the domain of national politics. The increasing demand for a sugar tax clearly is, but many practical farming decisions are influenced by the CAP. This has a substantial emphasis on protecting the environment, but does not tackle health related issues.

On the CAP, the report says, 'The Common Agricultural Policy spends €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money across the EU31– a vast amount that could be doing so much more to support and incentivise those farmers doing the right thing for society and the environment and push up standards across the board. But only a tiny proportion of this expenditure represents good value for money by being targeted at sustainable farming. Much of the rest ends up in the coffers of big business or capitalised in agricultural land prices, delivering little more than private profit or too often is supporting unsustainable farming systems, stifling innovation and hampering competitiveness.'

It is open to question whether large farms do stifle innovation, particularly technological innovation. The tone of the report is very critical of the market economy and praises regulation. It may be, however, that some of its objectives could be achieved within a market economy, or at least by using market based policy instruments. The UK's track record at exercising leadership on the CAP, which is called for in the report, has not been impressive so far, despite valiant efforts to secure reform, in part because of the vested interests of member states.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The EU, Britain and agriculture

Defra has published the 'balance of competences' report on the relationship between the EU and Britain in the area of agriculture. At first glance there is a lot of 'x stakeholder says this' and 'y' stakeholder says that, but it will certainly repay further study. The full report can be downloaded here: Balance of competences

The executive summary states: 'The debate on EU competence for agriculture as set out in the evidence submitted was strongly supportive of EU competence in relation to the Single Market for agricultural goods and to the EU’s role in negotiating global trade deals for agricultural goods. In relation to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there was a recognition that it had changed significantly from its post-war origins, particularly over the past 30 years. The most damaging and trade-distorting elements had been removed and the UK had played a significant role in driving reform.' In short, things have been worse, they have got somewhat better, we deserve a pat at the back for that and anyway there is no alternative.

The summary continues, 'However, respondents put forward evidence that, notwithstanding the reforms, the CAP’s objectives remained unclear and that the criteria for allocation of funding were irrational and disconnected from what the policy should be aiming to achieve. The majority of respondents argued that the CAP remains misdirected, cumbersome, costly and bureaucratic. Environmental organisations advanced detailed evidence about how historically, market intervention and direct payments had led to negative impacts on biodiversity and the farmed environment. The advent of agri-environment schemes had been beneficial across Europe and provided a regime for conservation that might not otherwise exist.' In short, this is a badly designed and implemented policy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

New farm minister owns wellies

Liz Truss is the second woman MP from South-West Norfolk to hold the post of farm minister. Her predecessor Gillian Shephard held the portfolio from 1993 to 1994. There has been a long line of agriculture ministers from East Anglia.

Farm leaders wanted to keep Owen Paterson in post, but a lack of wellies during the floods undermined his reputation. His tough line on the badger cull earned plaudits from farmers, but leaving aside opposition from wildlife campaigners and many scientists, the cull failed on its own terms, targets not being met. Paterson then rather unfortunately complained that the badgers had moved the goalposts.

Some commentators, such as the Spectator think that he was targeted by pressure groups. This view has been pursued by Paterson who argues that he was the victim of a powerful self-serving environmental lobby he termed the 'green blob': Green blob . The Economist suggested that he should never have been appointed in the fisrt place.

As far as Farmers Weekly is concerned, Truss does have one of the main qualifications for the post, her own pair of willies, white to judge from the accompanying photograph, thus appearing stylish while avoiding the green colour favoured by urbanites in the countryside. She also takes a hard line on badgers.

The real difficulty for any Defra minister, apart from the fact that most agriculture policy is decided in Brussels, is Defra itself. It is a real mish mash of a department, uncertain whether its main role is to reform the CAP, boost the rural economy (of which agriculture is an important but only one part) or protect the environment. No wonder it has already finished off two ministers, but Ms Truss may be made of sterner stuff.