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The Cost Of Food

We had a lovely but soggy New Year in Brecon, one of my favourite places. Great walking, ancient and brooding scenery, Butty Bach.

Things got even wetter by the end of the week, which finished for me with a trip to Oxford for the Farming Conference. I managed to rescue the car from 6 inches of water in the Park and Ride but Caroline was less lucky here in Somerset, where the rain was so intense she couldn't get home and had to stay the night with friends.

In Oxford there was much gnashing of teeth about the crop failures the weather has brought. For many arable farmers it must be the last straw and, curiously, there's no government safety net to bail them out. Direct help like this is surely going to be a given as climate change begins to really bite, as no amount of clever farming is going to completely insulate farmers from its effect. Anyway, more of this anon.


There are - revealingly - two farming conferences held at the same time in Oxford. There's the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the Oxford Farming Conference. The ORFC is full of people like me, which is why I go to the more commercial and hard nosed OFC.  

In one way the stories from the conference haven't changed over the years, and it's a pretty similar message from the People's Front of Judea as well as the Judean People's Front. I'm always so impressed by them, told by relatively small scale farmers who diversify and establish their own brand. This year we heard from Jim Shanks, for example, a Scottish dairy farmer who is also now Scotland's only tomato producer. Jim turned his least productive pasture into 4 acres of glass and grows tomatoes using heat from his biodigestor, which also supplies his fertiliser. We also learnt about gin and cafes, honey and seaweed. There were brilliant and inspiring speakers, doing well in spite of the system and creating genuinely sustainable if not regenerative businesses, which were a lot more resilient than when they started off. There's a focus on margins not yields these days partly driven by rocketing input prices, which is a good thing too.

Like farmers all over the world, all these projects had engagement with local communities, their customers, at their core. And our demands on farmers are getting more and more extreme and contradictory. We want cheap food, produced with no damage to the environment - in fact, produced while farmers enhance it.  

This was the idea behind Michael Gove's Environmental Land Management Schemes ("ELMS"). After initial enthusiasm I've been sceptical, it turns out with good reason.

Sunlit Uplands

After Brexit we had the opportunity to redesign our farm subsidy system. In Europe, we had just been paying farmers on the basis of the acreage of land they farmed. This hadn't produced any tangible results either for the environment or to make our food supply more resilient - just the opposite. 

Govey announced a sweeping change in policy to try to put this right - what's now known as the "agricultural transition". Farmers can now apply for "Sustainable Farming Incentives" (SFIs) or new and enhanced subsidies through the old Countryside Stewardship scheme. DEFRA's ambition for these is pretty lofty:

These reforms are essential to help us grow and maintain a resilient, productive agriculture sector over the long term and at the same time achieve our ambitious targets for the environment and climate, playing our role in tackling these huge, global challenges.

While we have long relied on farmers to produce the healthy, high-quality food for which they are so well known, too often production methods have been at the expense of nature rather than being symbiotic. We need farmers and other land managers to improve the natural environment, alongside food production, with environmental goods and services playing a key role in all farm businesses.

There were some pretty exciting upward revisions to some of the subsidies on offer announced at the Conference, not least a huge increase in the money paid to manage species rich grassland. I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the DEFRA staff, and their constructive attitude to farmers. There's been a huge amount of work involved in all this, and the detail is mind boggling. And yet...

Trouble Ahead

I've always had three major reservations about ELMS:

1. We as taxpayers are paying UK farmers to produce food to high environmental standards. At the same time, our government is signing trade agreements encouraging, for example, Australians to import beef here with no equivalent requirements.  We need some stick as well as carrot. Chicken producers here have made the calculation that knocking out birds for less than a pint of Butty Bach and polluting the local water system is more profitable than picking up some Sustainable Farming Incentives. 

2. Govey promised that the system would be cheaper to administer than what happened before, which I imagine was how he sold it to the Treasury. It's obvs. incredibly complicated and nuanced, which is also a strength, but there's no budget for enforcement. There was an agricultural advisor at the Conference asking us to encourage farmers to sign up, who was equally keen to get applicants to bend the rules rather than break them, as it would spoil it for all of us. Jaw dropping. How any fraudulent claims are going to be weeded out is anyone's guess. I'm not sure the National Audit Office will be thrilled.

3. Our farms are not nature reserves. The clue's in the name. A weird front of the culture war has opened between the NFU, who think of farmers as food producers, and a lobby I'm going to lazily describe as rewilders. Surely the answer is somewhere in the middle, which is exactly what DEFRA's aim is. Sure, rewild low grade farmland or cover it with solar panels, but don't incentivise farmers to do it willy nilly. Similarly, don't encourage them to damage the environment by constantly demanding stupidly low prices for food. This isn't a binary argument about nature v. food production.

There have been three developments recently which have compounded my disquiet:

1. Steve Barclay seems like a nice enough bloke, but he is the 6th Secretary of State since 2018. We desperately need a consistent strategy, and this isn't the way to deliver it. Farming is an area where we need bipartisan agreement and long term thinking.

2. A year ago government was talking exclusively about sustainability and biodiversity loss, etc. A pretty green agenda. Now they're beginning to panic about food security and the impact of climate change. Which is it, chaps? The subsidy system is still all about the environment, and I'd bet when the U-turn comes it will be more handbrake than three point.

3. Advisors and civil servants are now talking about farmers using their least productive 5% of land for ELMS incentives. Is this such a good idea? Shouldn't we have a subsidy system which works for whole farms, which was the original thinking?  

Some Ideas

What is my recipe for success? I don't have a golden bullet, but this would be a good start: 

1. Education. Not only of farmers and contractors on basic issue like hedge cutting, but also of society at large. We need to value horticulture and agriculture as professions and to understand the true cost of food production. 

2. This implies proper measurement of the environmental damage caused to produce food. The farm director at ASDA was complaining about this at the Conference; he doesn't believe any of the carbon calculations he's presented with.

3. Aggressive enforcement by the Office of Environmental Protection. We need a much bigger stick pour encourager les autres if there aren't people on the ground monitoring farmers' behaviour. The farmers at the Conference were the good guys, but let's not kid ourselves - there are plenty who aren't.

4. Think of sustainable food production itself as a public good. 

5. Use subsidies to embed good practice into farming across the board, not just the 5%.

6. Consistent policy and consistent funding. Easily said!