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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