Response to DEFRA Consultation
Health and harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit, is the document that provides the basis for Government consultation. Here is my full response to the consultation. NFU summary response 44,000 Responses
While 'food' is in the title, it barely gets another mention. At the end of each section they ask for priorities. Here I do more of an overview. If you want copy/paste various paragraphs to friends/facebook/tweet please do. Here are a dozen key points with Health & Harmony quotes in italics
1. Note that while we welcome the discussion, it does not require devolution (i.e. Brexit) to occur. Nevertheless it is being called ‘a Green Brexit’. We could and should do many of the suggestions anyway – we have control over our own borders on most of these matters. Many of the issues could and should have been dealt with a long time ago – the EU wasn’t stopping us. Secondly, there is a major debate in the EU about devolving the Common Agricultural policy to national level. France is against, but many others in favour. We could be in the EU promoting the 'nationalisation' of the CAP.
2. I welcome the initiative to promote more sustainable soils. It is long overdue, as past governments have done virtually nothing. The NFU said the EU Soil Framework Directive wasn’t needed and the New Labour government agreed to help set up a ‘blocking minority’ to get rid of it throughout the EU (p 109 & 127 Bittersweet Brexit). So it is good to see ‘soil health’ mentioned as ‘a public good’, and ‘an environmental plan goal’. But we do not need to leave the EU to do this! We need to develop sets of soil health indicators that people can relate with. Being a soil zoologist I argue for earthworms and/or predatory mites - ie living creatures.
3. H&H says “Farming is crucial to achieving the goals set out in our recently published 25 Year Environment Plan. A new environmental land management system will help us to preserve the investment in our countryside. This will be underpinned by natural capital principles.” They say they will get rid of the cumbersome agri-environmental schemes, which did very little anyway. Good. However, the main issue is whether such matters should be left in individual farmers hands – rather than organised as local communities. There seems to be a massive emphasis on environmental conservation, but little about producing food, and even less on how we do that more sustainably. I notice in the Farmers Guardian (April 13) that Mr Gove 'admits need for a food policy' Good. There seems to be acceptance of critical link between sustainable food systems and healthy diets, which is very welcome.
4. We must welcome the scrapping of CAP subsidies just for owning land. This is popular, but should be capped at lot lower level than they suggest. H&H says we need “to ensure public money is spent on public goods”. It’s a good slogan, but when land is owned by a few, it is going to be interesting to see how ‘the public good’ will be determined. There is a list of possible ‘public goods’ about soil, air water quality and biodiversity with which we should all agree. But public goods should also extend to rural poverty - largely ignored. Even the Countryside Alliance have made this clear to the government. The uplands seem to be an after thought. As Sustain say, there need to be clearer goals for what we aim for in terms of improved public goods. There are forces like Bright Blue (a 'Think Tank') who suggest a Greener More Pleasant Land means doing away with subsidies and “replacing with market based system to encourage to work in a more environmentally-sustainable way by bidding for green contracts”. How is the subsidy decision going to be carried out? Hopefully not just through this consultation - but proper debate in parliament.
5. In my book Bittersweet Brexit, I propose that the £3+Billion present CAP subsidies that goes mainly to large landowners, often not working the land, we can pay 300,000 permanent workers £10,000 extra a year – a living wage. This could help keep food prices low and at the same time work to produce food that is healthier for people and the planet.
6. H&H says “Better animal and plant health, animal welfare, improved public access, rural resilience and productivity are also areas where government could play a role in supporting farmers and land managers in the future”. This is good - but promising the earth. Where is the money coming from, and has this been costed?
7. We should direct worker subsidies to growing a lot more fruit and vegetables – to save other peoples’ land and labour. We can produce much more ourselves. For everybody to conform to the Eatwell Guidelines we would increase fruit & veg growth by 2.4 m tonnes – a 66% increase.(details Table 3 in Bittersweet Brexit). It also means that instead of spending money elsewhere we could invest in ourselves. Replacing a third of imported fruits and vegetables would ‘save a billion’. This is a step towards a target of saving $33b by halving food imports. Most agree that this is the healthy way forward. But we also have to say that we do not want to carry on producing them in the way we do now. Massive plantations are ruining our best land and is dependent on migrant workers – the very thing that led to Brexit.
8. H&H says there is “a huge opportunity for UK agriculture to improve its competitiveness – developing the next generation of food and farming technology, adopting the latest agronomic techniques, reducing the impact of pests and diseases, investing in skills and equipment and collaborating with other farmers and processors.” We do need to develop the next generation, and that will require long term thinking and investment. But we shouldn’t do this for ‘improving competitiveness’. Who will we be competing with? The EU mainly, and they are maintaining their subsidies.If we have lots of 'free trade deals' we will be competing with cheaper food grown with cheaper labour. Dependency on on this approach will continue driving efficient production, when we should be looking at a much wider brief – those public goods. The EU very much promote an agro-ecological approach, which designs smaller scale production, with wider variety of produce that relies more on natural control, and provides a living wage, rather than drudgery.
9. For which we will need a whole new research paradigm. There are signs (eg N8 Universities Agri-Tech) but there is an awful lot to make up for – ¾ of our land based research stations have gone in the last 25 years. This will require long term thinking, investment, development of research facilities, in a wide range of disciplines. We have lost many agricultural science skills. There is only one place to get a horticulture degree. Among new skills, we need smaller engineering (that harness energy to do away with drudgery), Integrated Crop Management, Soil health indicators, local seed banks. Who and how will this be paid for, and what guarantees are there for the long term?
10. instead of depending on world markets we need to build local markets based on local networks. This way the money invested ‘sticks’ to generate a further income - 10X more when spent locally ,according to NFU. New rural to town systems need to be re-established. Yet there is little talk of how to generate rural economies. A recent Lords Committee said Defra should loose its responsibility for 'rural affairs', which should go to Housing & Communities. And an EFRA Select Committee says farm businesses 'could be wiped out after Brexit transition'.
11. Part of this will be role of local authorities and food manufacturers. LA’s felt constrained under EU rules of open competition to direct local investment. Curiously the rest of Europe didn’t feel constrained, and Preston is showing the way it can be done. Manufacturers need to be using much more UK produce – e.g. not importing all our baked beans and cornflakes. We want short smart food chains to deliver from farm to fork. A possible way to encourage this is to provide vouchers - say for people on Universal Credit, to purchase local fruit and vegetables.
The Future of Farming suggests that this could be a 'Buy British' voucher but I am suggesting something more local like the US SNAP incentive schemes. "When a family spends $20 of their SNAP benefits at a participating farmers market, they could get an additional $10 to spend on locally grown fruits and vegetables. " It brings together farmers, shoppers, grocers (remember them?), small businesses, government departments, and public health advocates.
12. All of which depends on NOT competing with rest of the world for cheaper food. This is the biggest contradiction in Michael Gove’s position. While speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, he was sat next to US Trade ambassador. Coming out of the Customs Union in order to make free trade deals will lead to lots more cheap food coming in. That is what most free trade dealers want and what most other countries in a free trade deal want. While this applies especially to the US, it will be the same for deals with Argentina, Brazil, and Australia. While this isn't mentioned in H&H, it is vital that Mr Gove is told what to do with those 'free trade' trade deals. The Labour Party has decided to stay in the Customs Union – so we couldn't make such deals.
Gove & US Treasury man @ Oxford Farming Conference
My response to Gove's speech made in January 2018 @ Oxford Farming Conference includes the line: "We won’t have this green and pleasant land so well described by yourself, if we go in for cheap food free trade deals, instead we will have containers full of corn crap pouring into our food manufacturing industry."