When Margaret Beckett was in charge of DEFRA I asked her at a press conference whether she or her officials had assessed “the proportion of the nation’s food that should be produced at home”. Students of agricultural history will recognise that phrase as being crucial to the food strategy adopted as part of the 1947 Agriculture Act against the background of food rationing. The minister clearly realised I was inviting her to update her government’s view on that part of a historic strategy.
I knew the answer to my question, but I was surprised at the vehemence of her response. She retorted she would not waste time calculating UK food security. The world is awash with food, she seemed to suggest, and the UK could import any it needed. She was more interested in policies that enhanced the environment than those that produced more food. My wrist was metaphorically slapped for raising the subject.
I was unhappy with her answer and, in 2007, I published a discussion paper entitled The Challenges Facing World Agriculture. It explored the rise in world population and the associated increase in demand for food and suggested some solutions. A year or so later, Sir John Beddington, then the government’s chief scientific adviser, published an authoritative analysis of the same scenario.
“A top priority of the new top team at the NFU must be to reinforce Peter Kendall’s message.”
He called the situation a “perfect storm” in which food demand would increase, especially in developing economies, while climate change, shortage of fresh water and the non-availability of sufficient extra land on which to grow crops could create an explosive situation.
Four years ago, Hilary Benn (who had succeeded Dame Margaret at DEFRA) published the Labour government’s agriculture and food strategy. Entitled Food 2030, it took its lead from Prof Beddington’s Foresight report and turned Dame Margaret’s previous comments on their head. It was the first government-published food strategy since 1947, although some insiders suggested that opinion among influential DEFRA officials still favoured environmental priorities over production.
Come the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, however, that strategy document appears to have been cast aside and once again our industry and, perhaps even more importantly UK consumers, found themselves with no official policy for food save that set by a handful of powerful supermarkets. And this as the UK population increases fast towards 70 million and the rest of the world to more than nine billion. Exponential demands for more food will make importing food increasingly difficult and more expensive.
In his valedictory addresses as NFU president, Peter Kendall called for government to recognise the importance of agriculture and demanded a food strategy be published, as a template against which future policies could be measured.
In the absence at the NFU meeting through illness of DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson, the minister George Eustice said: “Judge us by what we do.” But that’s not good enough. Volatile markets and the Westminster ideas incubator mean unplanned things can happen. If we farmers are to provide increased production for UK consumers, we need the confidence to invest in the latest technology.
A published food strategy emphasising our role and supporting home production would help. A top priority of the new top team at the NFU must be to reinforce Mr Kendall’s message. We must wish them success.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob