A top government adviser has claimed that food security should not be taken seriously – asserting there is no right answer to how much food British farmers should produce.
Pursuing agricultural policies to provide food security would be economically burdensome and “not the best defence policy,” claims economist Dieter Helm, who chairs the Natural Capital Committee, which advises Defra on environmental issues.
Prof Helm’s vision for agriculture is outlined in a new book called Green and Prosperous Land. It details much-publicised plans to move away from direct payments towards a new support system based on “natural capital” – rewarding farmers who undertake environmental measures.
“Food security is largely an empty slogan of lobbyists,” he argues. “It should not be taken seriously.”
Prof Helm’s views are significant because he helped the government devise its 25-year environment plan. Defra secretary Michael Gove has described him as a “brilliant economist” and is a self-confessed enthusiast for the natural capital concept.
But the NFU said Prof Helm’s views failed to recognise the contribution food production makes to the economy. Farmers underpinned the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – food and drink – worth £113bn annually, it said.
NFU president Minette Batters said: “The suggestion that food security should not be taken seriously shows a complete disregard for the importance of home-produced food and its role in feeding the nation.”
Failure to value the UK’s ability to produce its own food risked exporting agricultural production, warned Ms Batters – including to countries that lacked the same high animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards adhered to by British farmers.
She added: “We know this is something the public simply would not accept.”
Ms Batters said she had never argued for British farmers to produce 100% of the UK’s food. But it is vital the government recognise the importance of food production – and that environmental delivery can only be undertaken by profitable farmers.
“It now has an important role to give farm businesses the tools they need to be productive, profitable and progressive, which will allow our industry to continue providing safe, traceable and affordable food for the public, all while protecting our cherished countryside.”
Mr Gove has said he wants to remake the nature of farm support, directing money to the most deserving and better rewarding those who are “doing all the right things environmentally” while improving the functioning of the food supply chain.