The new Defra secretary, Liz Truss, declared, when appointed, that she looked forward to championing British food and tackling the important issues facing rural communities.
She mentioned flooding, badgers and bovine TB and enhancing the environment, which were probably all she felt confident to speak of before being briefed by Defra staff, having just come from the Ministry of Education.
One issue she did not touch was the vexed question of Britain’s declining food security, which has been falling by 2% a year since 1991 and now we only produce 60% of our nation’s needs. Another issue, and it’s closely associated with our static production over those years, is low or in many cases non-existent profitability across sectors of our industry.
Doubtless she will by now be word-perfect on Defra’s received wisdom on those matters. I was slightly ahead of her in that I questioned George Eustice on food security during his visit to the Norfolk Show. He was in a hurry to attend an official lunch at the time and brushed me off with the comment along the lines that it wasn’t a problem, there was plenty of food in the shops and no-one was going to starve.
Doubtless she will by now word-perfect on Defra’s received wisdom on those matters
I was not satisfied with his answer and wrote to him spelling out the need for policies to increase UK self-sufficiency, not only for the security of our increasing population but also to prepare ourselves for when demand for food would increase and when it might not be so easy or cheap to import it. I accused him of sounding like Margaret Beckett when she was at Defra and claiming the world was awash with food and implying that home production was almost irrelevant.
George Eustice did not reply, but asked one of his minions to do so. “The UK currently has a high degree of food security in terms of access, availability, resilience and variety of food supply,” Defra’s ‘Sir Humphrey’ wrote.
“This is built on both a strong food production base in the UK and access to a wide variety of markets through the EU and an open, rules-based world trading system. UK food security is supported by consumer prosperity and income which is addressed through the government’s focus on growth. However, food security cannot be delivered by focusing on self-sufficiency. International trade has an important role…” And so on. You get the drift.
I felt fully justified in suggesting Defra was still using Margaret Beckett’s scripts. Or perhaps it was Defra’s script and Mrs Beckett happened to be the first, but certainly not the last, to use it. We can only hope Liz Truss finds some of Owen Paterson’s more realistic words in the drawers of the desk at which she now sits and is not persuaded by her permanent staff.
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That other issue of lack of profitability is equally important. And the collapse of commodity prices in recent months has exacerbated the problem. Official policy is still to phase out EU payments over time, leaving farmers to rely on world markets. If it happened immediately (which it won’t) half the farms of Britain would go bust. But will the situation be very different in five years?
Here’s a prediction. Reaction to current low commodity prices will be lower plantings worldwide for a couple of years, leading to shortages and higher prices for a year or two after that. Then the cycle will begin again and repeat itself with more farmer casualties each time. What a way to run a railway.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob