Stephen Carr: Sale of the century at Oxford

It is to Oxford, in January, that go-ahead farmers flock to gaze at sparkling agricultural policy hardware. With an election only months away this year saw all the major policy manufacturers – Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem – turn up in force to impress punters with their highly polished wares.

First up, with a gleaming piece of kit called the “Food 2030“, which he claimed was “the first major food strategy review for 60 years”, was DEFRA Secretary Hilary Benn.

As the Government’s chief food policy salesman he unveiled the much-trailered Food 2030 to a great fanfare. Its beautifully presented 80 pages are, unfortunately, mostly laden with largely impenetrable policy-wonk jargon. Typical is p50 which starts: “A competitive productive food sector: Businesses in the food system will de-couple greenhouse gas emissions from productivity, where technology exists, in order to deliver economic benefits while making absolute emissions reductions”.

But, like any good salesman, Mr Benn wasn’t going to have anyone knocking Food 2030 and said that it was important that farming be “talked up, not run down”. A slapped wrist, then, for anyone daring to use a dipstick to measure the recent alarming decline in levels of UK farm output or the £31.6bn of food that the UK now imports annually.

Worst of all would be to blame Britain’s mushrooming food trade deficit on the policy tucked away on p50 of Food 2030: “The UK is working for reform of the CAP so that farmers are subsidised only for producing societal benefits (particularly environmental outcomes) which the market cannot otherwise provide”.

Next on the stand was shadow DEFRA minister Nick Herbert who has the tricky task of selling the “David Cameron” to farmers.

Although farmers are noted for buying into Tory policies, the Cameron may not be as saleable as some previous Tory models. Sleek in design and smooth as his honed Eton and Oxford engine might be, there are several crunchy gears on the distinctly eurosceptic Cameron that might frighten some farmers off.

Many remember that he chose to make his first policy statement on agriculture as Tory party leader at the Soil Association annual conference – in what was seen as a snub to conventional farmers. Similarly, with special advisers on farming, trade and environmental policy like non-tax-dom and leading organic light Zac Goldsmith and outspoken champion of the developing world Bob Geldof, many punters could be forgiven for wondering just what they are buying into with the Cameron.

The other policy trade stand was occupied by the ever-keen Liberal Democrats, to whom farmers are extremely important buyers – particularly in the south-west of England and Scotland.

Always stuck uncomfortably between their two larger policy-manufacturing rivals, the Lib-Dems are nonetheless well known for some solid farmer friendly designs. But Chief Lib Dem Engineer Nick Clegg has alarmed many recently by making outspoken criticisms of open ended support for farmers. That only left its chief salesman, Andrew George, to claim (with some justification) that the Tories had stolen his patent of demanding a supermarket ombudsman, although he was quick to point that they were still well short of “signing up fully to the Competition Commission’s recommended remedy”.

So, as farmers left the glitzy Oxford show and returned to their shires, it was clear that many were unimpressed by the policy hardware options on display. Despite all the polish, razzamatazz and encouragement from policy manufacturers to produce more food, no-one offered farmers what they really need – a bit of fuel in their tank called “profit from production”.

See more