Hilary Benn’s speech at the Farming for the Future conference

Speech by Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP at the Farming for the Future Conference, London – 19 November 2007

Can I extend a warm welcome to everyone who has taken the time to join us here at the Oval today.

The five months since I arrived at Defra have been very difficult for parts of the farming community. I came into the job just after a blisteringly hot spring.

This rapidly turned into the wettest summer on record and for some, quite catastrophic flooding. And when that was over a series of animal disease outbreaks occurred culminating in last week’s discovery of avian flu in the east of the country. 

All this against a background of the continuing problem of Bovine TB and volatile international commodity markets, notably increasing cereal prices – which has been very good for some farmers, more difficult for others.

So I would like to extend my thanks to everyone in this room for what you have done to help deal with these problems, and for the way you have done it; and for the warmth of your welcome to me in my new job.

Now, faced with our current problems, it would be all too easy to lose sight of farming’s successes and its enormous potential. And over those same five months I have learned about both from talking to farmers and others in the industry to be optimistic about its future.

I was much struck, when I started in this job, by what both Peter Kendall, David Fursdon and others had to say about the industry’s potential and the fact that its destiny lies in your own hands.

Farmers have always had to adapt to change, and have shown very great resourcefulness in doing so.

If we are honest, this is not always how it feels; indeed the sense that farming is somehow a victim of circumstances is deeply ingrained in some.

For good reason, of course – we don’t control the weather and diseases can spread on the wind – but there is another side to it. The feeling – and I have heard it said to me – that society, or Defra or environmentalists or someone else is out to make life difficult for farmers.

It’s not the case. But what I want to talk about today is the great future for farming that all of us here today want to see – whether we’re from NFU, CLA, the Tenant Farmers Association, Natural England, Environment Agency, National Trust, RSPB or the Sustainable Development Commission – and how we can support each other in a changing world with changing expectations.

Why does farming matter ?

Everyone in this room, but not everyone in society, knows how much farming matters. Food does not come from supermarkets, but from the work that you and colleagues do.

You are responsible for managing around 75% of England’s green and pleasant land. Very little of it is truly wild; you and the generations before you have sculpted and shaped our landscape into the beauty that we, and millions of visitors to the country, can behold and marvel at.

Your efforts help give us health and prosperity through the food we eat, your contribution to rural communities and to our economy, and your role in providing environmental goods and services like flood defences; storm protection; climate regulation; habitats and healthy soils.

And, if I may say so, your understanding of the land and of the seasons – skills we need more than ever. You can teach us all about how to live sustainably.
What as a society do we want for farming? I think we want:

    * An industry that earns its way because of the quality, safety, and environmental and animal welfare standards of the food and other products it makes; in other words, profitable and competitive domestically and internationally.
    * An industry that works together collaboratively to meet the challenges it faces, and which manages the risks we face effectively.
    * An industry that embraces its environmental responsibilities – tackling climate chance, managing water and the soil – and sees them as essential to its long term economic success, rather than a threat to it.
    * An industry that is valued and rewarded by society  for managing our landscape and enhancing our biodiversity.

Would anyone disagree with that? But the further question is how can we do all this and what about the changes we are having to face up to?
The truth is that the world in which we all live and work is changing. Climate change most of all – just look at the latest IPCC report last weekend and remember; it’s not just about farmers in other, far-off places.

It’s about here – the impact on crop yields or bluetongue – but it may also provide opportunities like a longer growing season.

Population growth; how will we feed not just the 6.2 billion people in the world today, but the 9.5 billion human beings there may be in 2050?

Water scarcity; what will we doing when people start fighting over not politics, but the availability of water?

The growing influence and wealth of other economies – particularly China and India.

High oil prices – now at nearly $100 a barrel.

A better informed and more aware society pressing for higher environmental standards. Those are just some of the challenges. How do we respond?

First, Europe.  Getting it right in the EU will be crucial.  Tomorrow the Commission will publish its consultative paper on CAP “health check”, so formally starting a debate on the next major round of CAP reform.

Continuing reform of the CAP is both inevitable and necessary.  The CAP needs to move much further in the direction of reduced market management, with  farmers producing for the market, and the taxpayer paying for the delivery of public goods – particularly environmental ones – which the market cannot  provide.
We also need to consider how the Common Agricultural Policy can best help fight climate change and adapt to it, support biodiversity, and promote the management of water resources and landscape protection. 

And what the right balance is between things like agri-environment schemes, cross compliance, regulation, and market pull, as we look to cut burdens on farmers.

Secondly, the way you manage the natural resources on which you depend will be absolutely critical to farming’s long term sustainability.  That’s why we have committed £3.9 billion of public money to the next Rural Development Programme in England; the major part of which will be devoted to agri-environment schemes under Environmental Stewardship.

Despite the real progress there has been, we have to be honest about the significant challenges that remain:

    * About 60% of nitrates in rivers come from agriculture;
    * Many important farmland habitats and species are still in decline in England;
    * Farming is the single biggest source of nitrous oxide and also contributes over a third of our methane emissions;
    * Over a fifth of land in England is at high risk of soil erosion, threatening the health and viability of our land; and
    * With the reduction to zero of compulsory set aside, and its likely abolition in the Health Check – and we support that – we need to find ways of ensuring that the wildlife and other benefits it has brought, as a by-product of its original intention, are not lost.

I recognise and applaud the fact that farmers are managing their land in an environmentally responsible way – it’s really good to read about the real potential of agri-environment schemes, a really good project where for example local farmers, United Utilities, RSPB and the Peak District National Park and others have been working together to improve land management, water quality and to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Organisations such as LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and the HGCA (Home Grown Cereals Authority – Levy Board) have developed and promoted the use of integrated farm management, and companies such as Birdseye, Jordan’s and Co-op farms have embraced these systems.

This is really good – and I look forward to these schemes developing transparent and readily comparable standards. I know that this was discussed at a workshop Defra hosted earlier this year, and I look forward to seeing it used more widely.

The third challenge is Climate Change.  As farmers and land managers you have a central role in tackling it; indeed you are on the front line; the first to feel the impact.

7% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – about the same as from aviation, although aviation emissions are probably going to increase.  I know that many people here are committed to the need to reduce emissions. So we will need continuing strong leadership from within the industry.

There are lots of practical steps that can be taken to reduce direct emissions of methane and nitrous oxide are practical – for example by using fertiliser more efficiently, by providing animals with diets that specifically match their nutrient requirements, or by improving manure management and using anaerobic digestion to generate power at the same time.

I hadn’t been in this job for long when Jeff Rooker told me about the Biogen on-farm anaerobic digestion plant in Bedfordshire – processes 12,000 tonnes of pig slurry and 30,000 tonnes of food waste a year, to produce biogas.

This runs a generator with an electrical output that’s enough to power 600- 800 homes. That is farming at the cutting edge of technology and the fight against climate change.

Because of the climate change that is already happening farming needs to adapt. New risks are already apparent. Events like the summer floods may occur more frequently and water shortages will also become more common.

The outbreaks of FMD, Bluetongue and Avian Influenza this year have reminded us, as if we didn’t already know, just what an impact diseases can have, and climate change may bring with it the risk of new ones.

Climate change also brings new opportunities – for new crops like olives in the South West, for bio energy of all kinds, not just biofuels, or being able to differentiate products according to their “environmental footprint”.

Indeed, as you know, customers will be pushing that process, and increasingly interested in knowing what the answer is.

I greatly welcome the work the Rural Climate Change Forum, and what you are doing to raise awareness about these risks, responsibilities and opportunities amongst farmers and land managers. 

The Farming Futures project in particular, a partnership between the NFU, CLA, the levy boards and Forum for the Future, is making a really impressive contribution.

I am very pleased to announce today that Defra will provide further funding for this project of up to a quarter of a million pounds between now and March 2009, subject to the existing partners, or new ones, also finding resources to contribute.

Fourthly, the industry will need new skills and knowledge. I’ve been learning about the Fresh Start initiative, which is a really good example of what can be done – 450 young people graduating to become the farmers of tomorrow.

There are skills out there that may not be captured by our current way of measuring things – we need to recognise the talent in the farming industry, shown for example in the Farmer’s Weekly Awards. We need to tap into these skill and innovations and harness them better.

Fifthly, the events of these last few months have brought home to us – in dramatic fashion – the importance of managing risk of animal disease.

Now I know this won’t be popular with everyone, but I have to tell you that my experience of dealing with the  outbreaks of Avian Influenza, Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue this summer have brought home to me that cost and responsibility is not “just another thing to deal with” – I have seen how this is the right direction and we need to get moving.

I want the industry to be much more deeply involved in the key policy and operational decisions, and rather than shy away from hard choices I think now is an opportune time to reinvigorate this debate.

Some advised me not to raise this now, because of the difficulties over the summer. But I have to tell you the truth. The current arrangements are unsustainable. Public spending on animal health and welfare is in excess of £400m a year, and that is without the additional costs of dealing with disease outbreaks. 

Direct costs to the taxpayer for the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis were of the order of £3 billion, with wider costs to the economy a further £5 billion.

I want to reform the current system so that farmers – those who benefit more than anyone else from well managed risk – are central to the decision making process and contribute to the costs of those decisions in a fair way. 

In doing so, not only will disease risk be reduced, but so will the regulatory burden on farmers – and with it the feeling that Defra has put controls in place for its own reasons.

We don’t do that. In the future, the industry should take those decisions because no-one has a greater incentive to get it right than you do.

Something else will push us in this direction – European Community animal health policy is expected to change. I want Britain to be in a position to influence this debate and to secure an outcome which recognise the unique structures and dynamics of the livestock industry. So that’s another reason to begin this process now.

We will therefore be looking to consult before Christmas. We will be asking you for your views, and, in particular, those of individual livestock keepers with whom we will be engaging through a series of regional workshops over an extended consultation period of 18 weeks.

As part of this, I think the industry should explore market based ways of managing animal disease risks, including the associated costs.

Finally, in looking to the future and identifying risks that could impact on us directly or indirectly, the question of food security is increasingly raised.

Food security is very important in the 21st Century, in developed economies as well as those in the developing world.  In our country, food security means consumers having access to safe, quality, nutritional food, which they can afford and in quantities they need. It should be a fundamental goal for all Governments.

A competitive, vibrant farming sector, producing what consumers want, will see it continuing to produce the majority of our food. 

And with 60 million relatively affluent and increasingly discerning consumers on our doorstep, I see no reason why that should not be the case. Food security is not the same as self-sufficiency, however. 

What matters is effective risk management, ensuring security of energy supplies, access to food from a variety of sources, a strong food chain and infrastructure, and the capacity and contingency planning to deal with specific risks to our food supply. 

I’m up for a debate about this – we have a lot of important and interesting issues in front of us today.  I hope the debate will be stimulating. In my experience, farmers are plain speakers – and I much prefer that.

Because plain speaking will help us to identify what we need to do and practical action will help us get there.

My job, and that of everyone in Defra, is to help us to do that.

Thank you

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