Sunday, September 25, 2016

Four threats to global food security

This blog piece looks at four threats to global food security and what we can do about them: Food security

The four threats identified are drought, emerging diseases, salty soils and over dependence on fertilisers.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

SAWS scheme to be revived?

Ministers are discussing with farming leaders the possibility of reviving a version of the SAWS scheme after Brexit to meet the need for migrant labour in the fruit and vegetable sector. Some producers have considered relocating abroad. A farmer in Suffolk recently placed on hold an order for £500,000 worth of cherry trees because of uncertainties about Brexit.

Planting and harvesting these crops is labour intensive and hard, monotonous work. About 75,000 workers a year are needed as British workers are reluctant to do the work. It's temporary and they would lose most of their benefits. Replacements such as robots are a long way off.

The seasonal agriculture workers (SAWS) scheme, which allowed people to come to Britain for six months to pick fruit and vegetables, operated for sixty years until 2013. It is felt that a larger and more flexible scheme is needed so that labour could be recruited from anywhere in the world. It is estimated that 90,000 workers will be needed by 2019.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Thinking about the consequences of Brexit

On a hot day a group of leading experts on the CAP and related issues gathered in a basement in London to discuss the challenges from Brexit on Chatham House terms.

Concern was expressed about the capacity of a hollowed out civil service to deal with the issues. How could we administer the more targeted policy that was likely to emerge after Brexit? Government departments were structuring and organising themselves with some staff transfers taking place, e.g., from Defra to the Brexit department.

It was somewhat ironic that the first trade pact being talked about was with Australia with which we had a small volume of trade. They would free access for agricultural products, not least for sugar. What would the EU think about that?

There was no idea how tariff related quotas or the amber box could be shared out.

After Brexit, should the focus be on labour saving technology development? But how near and how feasible/financially viable were some of the big developments like crops being picked by robots?

It was pointed out that existing domestic regulations were backed up in terms of compliance and enforcement by the possibility of reference to the ECJ.

The CAP was designed to slow down structural change, so we could expect more farm amalgamations after Brexit. Asset prices would fall. However, it was agreed that there were many variables that affected land prices, not least the availability of tax relief. There was no simple relationship between farm support and land prices.

The issue of price volatility was noted and it was pointed out that the 2010 food security study was very reliant on the fact that we were in the EU. Vulnerabilities to climate change could increase price volatility. A lot of things that were not really about price volatility were badged as such.

As far as food security was concerned, the biggest problem was the lack of storage in the food supply chain and the resilience of the system.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A farmer writes

A contribution from an upland sheep farmer, reflecting on prospects after the Brexit decision.

'At the moment we have a reliable source of revenue from our lamb sales but are concerned to what will happen when our exit from the EU takes place as it seems no negotiations with old or new partners can take place until that point. This could leave a gap of several years before anything is agreed. There have been discussions with the US taking place for a couple of years via the EU I believe for the sale of lamb to the States, these of course will come to a stop and we will have to start again. More than one country has indicated that we will be at the end of the queue.

The British government is being rather vague over the continuation of any support after 2020. Conservation support will not pay the bills commendable as it is. It is also very short term usually in 5 year blocks, you are then on your own and must come up with new areas of the farm to enter into a new scheme for another five years.

All farms only have a limited area that can be taken out of production and still allow the farm to be a viable producer of food. Conservation will only be successful if the industry feels secure financially. Some form of support is certainly needed to counteract the volatility in food production as we all need to eat.

Of the type of support even we are not sure. Any payments per head of stock only produces quantity not quality which is not good for the industry or the environment. Payments on the number of hectares held has caused some problems in Wales as to how you value different areas of land. Perhaps something more on the quality of stock produced and sold successfully, but I don't know how that would equate in the more arable areas.

One thing is for certain, if the family farms are not maintained they simply will not be there in a few years then who is going to look after the environment? Those making an income from the land see and understand the healthy balance of the land for all concerned, and that certainly includes the wild life in all forms.

Also the local communities who rely on agriculture, there are many people working self employed, be they fencing contractors, tree surgeons, agricultural mechanics, shearers- to name some who would find themselves having to move away for work. Our villages will become ghost areas or holiday parks. even those with holiday cottages I hear are sometimes finding it difficult to fill the vacancies as there seems to be so many of them.'

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pressure for green farm subsidies is mounting

Pressure for a greening of domestic farm subsidies after Brexit is mounting. Indeed, one might say that it is becoming the new conventional wisdom.

Such pillars of the agricultural establishment as former Defra ministers Caroline Spellman and Richard Benyon, along with agriculture select committee chair and former MEP Neil Parish, are among 36 MPs who have written to Theresa May urging her to shift farm subsidies towards protecting the environment. It may be that they think that this is the best way of maximising continuing payments for farmers.

The influential RSPB is expected to launch its 2016 State of Nature report this week, claiming that intensive farming methods are putting more than 120 species of wildlife at risk.

The NFU is seeking to put food security, which it sees as its strongest subsidy card, back at the heart of the debate. They claim that the food and farming industry is worth £108bn a year, but that includes second stage food processing which is not reliant on domestic ingredients and necessarily has to import ones like cocoa.

Tim Lang from City University admits that farmers are being squeezed by a vicious cycle of increasing costs and lower returns. He says that what we need is less farming and more horticulture.

However, the sector is being hit by a double whammy of the National Living Wage and difficulties in recruiting labour after Brexit. Wages are a particular problem in Scotland where the National Living Wage is not age banded so that you cannot pay less to under 25s. Foreign workers are concerned about Brexit and a large UK supplier of foreign workers to UK agriculture has seen applicants to its Bulgarian office drop by 70 per cent compared with a usual 25 per cent at this time of year.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Concentration in seeds supply causes concern

Concern is growing about the extent to which the global seeds market is dominated by a smaller and smaller number of agribusinesses. The bid by Bayer for Monsanto has caused particular concern.

Twenty years ago there were 600 independent seed companies. Most of them have now been bought out by the six big players that control 63 per cent of the global seed market: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, Dow Chemical and BASF.

That could soon be just four companies. Dow and DuPont announced a $130bn merger last year, while ChemChina is pursuing a $44bn takeover of Switzerland's Syngenta. A takeover of Syngenta would be China's biggest overseas transaction.

The European Commission has launched an in depth probe into the effect of Dow-DuPont tie up on competition. However, Dow and DuPont do not think this will affect the deal going through. They propose to split the combined company into three parts after the merger.

A Bayer takeover of Monsanto would combine the two largest cotton seed sellers in the US into a single company, responsible for almost 70 per cent of crop acreage, according to Verdant Partners, a consultancy.

Campaigners are worried about the possible impact of these mergers on biodiversity. They are concerned that the diversity of plant varieties available to farmers would shrink even further.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Supply, demand and the dairy industry

Supply and demand are key forces in economics and the dairy industry is beset by excessive supply and flagging demand, leading to a situation in which prices for many farmers have fallen below the cost of production, although there are signs of a revival in prices.

The supply crisis was started by the end of milk quotas in 2015 and the Russian embargo on European dairy products. However, there has been a seven per cent fall in UK milk production and both global prices and those paid by milk processors are edging upwards.

On the demand side, the EU has brought in a milk reduction scheme which pays 12p for every litre not produced compared with output in the same period the year before, up to a maximum of 50 per cent.

The problem with schemes of this sort is 'additionality': do they change behaviour, or are they simply taken up by farmers who intended to reduce output anyaway? For example, it may be attractive if bTB has taken cows or calving has slipped. In any event, the effect on the total volume of production will be marginal and short-term.

On the demand side, younger people are drinking less milk. Celebrities advocating a vegan diet and concerns about the contribution of cattle to climate change are helping to persuade teenagers to switch to soya milk and other plant-based alternatives, according to Dairy UK. There is also concern about the fat content of milk, although it has other nutritional benefits.

According to research by Kantar Worldpanel, those over 65 consume milk 875 times a year compared with only 275 times for 5 to 24 year olds. Other research shows that 19 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds do not consume milk at all.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A critical look at the CAP and its possible replacements

A number of papers have been produced on the consequences of CAP and the policies that may replace it, but this is one of the better ones. It takes a critical look both at the pathologies of the CAP and the cases that have been put forward for continuing forms of subsidy: Dieter Helm

The paper points out that no other economic sector outside defence has received so much government money. It points out the CAP was the result of a very political deal, reflecting a very particular historical context. The reforms that have taken place addressed some of its deficiencies, but remain sub-optimal.

The paper subjects the three main arguments for subsidy to critical scrutiny: food security; a shift towards environmental subsidies; and public money for public goods. It points out that food security arguments still embody production maximisation. The paper then goes on to consider the key issue of a workable transition.

This is very much an economist's perspective and as a political economist I tend to take a somewhat different perspective. For example, I sometimes think it is necessary to accept a 'satisficing' (in Herbert Simon's terms) rather than an 'optimal' solution. However, I will certainly take its arguments seriously as I prepare my paper for a Welsh Assembly committee public seminar next month.