5 February 1999

Government concerns

about the food trade

gap have been

replaced by the

worrying attitude that

domestic food

production is not

important, a mood

change which seems

to be strengthening


Regular readers will be aware that I favour farming systems which recognise and respond to the wishes of consumers and taxpayers.

Many farmers have done just that, more because of their own reading of the market-place than any urgings of mine. Some have gone for farm assurance, to the disdain of some of their neighbours, in an effort to demonstrate the safety and credibility of their methods. Others, or perhaps many of the same, have adopted integrated farming, reduced their inputs and their unit costs, and at the same time improved the sustainability and profitability of their systems. A minority have gone to the extreme and converted to organic.

Today the vast majority of food from British farms is the safest and most ethically produced in the world. Those farms produce about 70% of the UKs requirement for commodities that can grow in our temperate climate. Only a few years ago we were being urged to produce more to help close the "food trade gap" between imports and exports which at the time was said to be costing Britain £6bn in goods from abroad which could have been produced here.

You do not hear much about the trade gap these days. It has been replaced by a sinister trend towards the perception that domestic food production is not important, that we can easily import anything we do not produce at home, that there are more pressing priorities for the countryside.

I have become gradually aware of this over a long period. But the first time I registered the strength of the mood change was last November. The Financial Times leader, after Nick Browns £120m aid package to cattle and sheep farmers was the trigger. As I quoted in this column the following week it said: "We do not want to prop up production. We want the countryside as a thing of beauty and ecological sustenance in which food may or may not play a part. Farmers can earn their money more usefully; not by tonnage of output, but by footage of hedgerow or dry stone walls or acreage of wild flowers."

Whether the FT led government opinion or government ministers disclosed their views to the FT leader writer I cannot say. All I know is that I picked up more of the same vibes during December and then, much more blatantly, from Alan Meale at last months Oxford Farming Conference. Mr Meale is an under secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. His speech stressed the value the government placed on the countryside, the importance of sustainable development, and the declining importance of farming. In short, he was setting the scene for a change in the role of our industry.

When asked a question about the reform of the CAP he showed his true colours even more clearly. The government was enthusiastic for reform, he replied. It was vital that the cost of the CAP be brought down. The government would argue in the negotiations for the best interests of rural communities and achieve the best deal possible for UK farming; and then came the bombshell: "So long as food production is not at the forefront of farming policy."

A couple of weeks later the Labour-dominated Commons agriculture committee published its assessment of the need for CAP reform. It continued the same theme. "The economic importance of agriculture is declining," it said. It called for greater national responsibility for rural policy within the EU. And its main concerns were for the competitiveness of UK agriculture, to promote more diversification away from traditional farming, to maintain the appearance of the rural environment, and to retain rural employment which may be directly or indirectly related to agriculture. The production of three-quarters of this countrys daily food, you will notice, was not even mentioned.

Clearly, politicians, the leader writers and their economic advisers take it for granted that there will be sufficient food, and to spare, whatever happens; that the surpluses of the past few years are now a permanent feature; that shortage of any commodity is a thing of the past. Are they right? If production here at home were to fail or decline could we not import adequate supplies from abroad? Would it be cheaper to do that anyway? You can almost hear the discussion in your imagination, concluding with the fact that there are fewer and fewer farmers each year, so even if the industry gets into difficulty their votes are irrelevant.

Politicians have short memories and most of them have little interest in, or understanding of, the realities of our industry. They have been persuaded that food supplies are secure and they have no concept that maintaining the countryside how they want it would be impossible if the land were not properly farmed. There is an urgent need for high-profile public debate to explain this to the legislators. This will begin at the Sentry Conference at Chilford Hall, near Cambridge, on Feb 18. Entitled The Countryside: Pleasure Park or Factory Floor? The conference is co-sponsored by farmers weekly. Many decision-makers will be there. Perhaps you should be, too. Phone 01473-658058 for details.

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