Eighty representatives of the main stakeholders in UK agriculture were recently invited to Defra HQ in London to talk about a national food policy.
As one who has long deplored the absence of such a policy – save that operated by the major supermarkets, most of whose objectives are to obtain supplies at the lowest price, wherever they come from – I should welcome the initiative. So, why am I concerned it could become yet another talking shop?
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob
Informal reports from some of those present indicate that the discussion, led by Defra ministers and top civil servants, concentrated on increasing productivity, improving competitiveness, raising export targets, innovation and appointing more apprentices.
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All worthy aims, but a very familiar mantra that fails to address the urgent priorities faced on many farms.
As NFU president Meurig Raymond said at the Royal Welsh Show last week, many farmers are struggling to stay in business.
He went on to reveal that 450 dairy farmers have been forced to give up over the past 12 months because of plunging milk prices.
“The same is true in the lamb market,” he said. “Where the farmers’ share of the retail price has fallen from 58% to 44% over the past year.”
Meanwhile, arable farmers are harvesting combinable crops that they are unlikely to be able to sell at a profit.
But Defra officials chose largely to ignore such matters, it is reported, preferring to suggest there are better times ahead.
Let’s hope they are right, but if current problems persist much longer the number of UK farmers that will be around to benefit will be severely reduced. Because confidence across broad swathes of our industry is being undermined as many farmers find it impossible to generate sufficient margin to survive, let alone invest in the future.
Also, Defra’s recent record does little to build confidence in its ability to supervise a vibrant new policy for the industry.
The Rural Payments Agency has made such a mess of administering single farm payments over the past 10 years that the EU has imposed fines totalling £642m.
Who knows what the penalty for this year’s cock-ups might add to that figure? And that will be on top of a bill for setting up the unworkable IT programme of some £150m.
And now the chancellor’s austerity programme is set to cut Defra’s budget by another 40% over the next four years, which suggests those in charge at Nobel House must be having almost as difficult a time balancing books as dairy farmers. Except, of course, it isn’t their money they are juggling with.
So, how do you make an industry competitive when imports from countries using technologies that are cheaper and, in some cases, illegal in this country are allowed in with no restrictions?
Similarly, when sterling is more valuable than other currencies, exporters from those countries find it attractive and rewarding to sell to the UK.
Meanwhile, importers in other countries have to pay more to buy from us. Under such circumstances, promoting exports and slowing imports are to say the least difficult.
What is clearly needed to revitalise our industry is an injection of capital and measures to stabilise returns at profitable levels.
Given the present financial environment, such things hardly seem likely.
We don’t even have access to the EU’s Rural Development Fund, which requires national governments to match European funding pound for pound.
Devolved Scotland does, as have many other EU states, but not England and Wales. So, talking shop or not?