Memorandum submitted by the Family Farmers' Association (SFS 40)

 

We welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter as it seems to us that the "current UK food system" is not at all "robust". This Association, throughout its nearly 30 years' existence, has been extremely concerned at the way government support for farming has been steadily diminishing. This applies to both financial and technical support, and especially for family, medium sized enterprises. There has been much encouragement for the enlargement of farms, often to the detriment of the landscape, environment and rural life in general. Indeed there is a strong feeling among grassroots farmers that they are distinctly unwanted.

 

We accept that there was a period when production incentives were so successful that over production became a problem. However, we agree with your initial analysis that food security is now becoming a challenge. The situation may well remain volatile for a number of years, as so many unexpected events can influence both production and demand for food, and they are rarely well balanced. It does now seem sensible to examine what measures should be taken to ensure long term food security both for ourselves and globally. It may be practical to divide the suggestions into immediate, long term, and global.

 

The greatest short term problem in Britain is excessive regulation. Government has theoretically recognised this for many years and supposedly attempted to reduce the burden. But unfortunately with no success. It is difficult for mere farmers to know how many regulations are forcibly imposed by the EU rather than Defra but many of them do seem singularly pointless, specifically the recent increase in severity of NVZ rules. The necessity for more storage capacity for slurry will no doubt prove a burden too far for many otherwise viable farmers. As the government is busy handing cash to many businesses, including banks, it is hard to understand why farmers could not be helped with this new liability. (It is not as if the problem has arisen from miss-management, as in the case of the banks!)

 

The forthcoming insistence on electronic identification for sheep is another prime example of regulation which will cause serious difficulty. How are sheep farmers supposed to pay for the necessary equipment, or even physically cope with it when flocks are dispersed over mountains?

A quite specific problem, which the government has the power to resolve, is the fact that a population of tuberculous badgers is allowed to cause chaos in many cattle keeping districts. It seems the government prefers to kill many thousand cattle, and cause untold misery and difficulties to large numbers of farming families, rather than risk the disapproval of those wildlife enthusiasts who consider badgers to be of supreme importance over all other species, wild and tame. This is really a rather incredible case of government caring not for farming, nor even for common sense, or how much money it wastes. Unfortunately your committee did not take the case against badgers seriously enough when you first studied it some time ago. You might care to re-read that Report and study more carefully the case against the badgers, which was very clearly explained. Since then there has been a lot more evidence of how badgers are spreading TB among cattle.

 

Other measures which would improve Britain's ability to produce food include a return to a comprehensive and independent government R & D programme. Present research seems to be mainly for narrow and specific commercial purposes. As well as original research, government should be running trials to produce a true evaluation of such things as organics and Genetic Modification. No genuine comparisons have been made as to whether GM is really beneficial in the long run, or whether it is just increasing because of excessive promotion and the fact that it is what might be called contagious - once established in an area it cannot then be avoided. Will organic production be able to maintain our food supply if/when the oil runs out? Will we be able to produce food in sufficient quantity without using oil or its products? If so, how?

 

The greatest need is for reasonable prices to ensure that food production is profitable. Three factors mitigate against this. One is the mysterious disappearance of money between the buying of food from farmers, at low prices, and the selling of food to consumers at a considerably higher price. This you have yourselves discovered, and a solution needs to be found, because low farmgate prices do not necessarily produce cheap food in shops. Related to this is the frequent bad behaviour of the supermarket buyers. A proper regulatory control on their trading practices is needed as the buying becomes concentrated in ever fewer hands. The third problem is the importation of cheap food produced to lower standards than are obligatory for home production. We, and many other bodies, have repeatedly pointed out that this is wrong, both ethically and from a public health standpoint. The very welcome rise in beef prices ex farm which followed the foot and mouth outbreak in South America demonstrated how much our prices can be depressed by cheap imports. Lower welfare standards in Europe produce cheap pig products which are keeping our prices low. Similar instances can be quoted from many parts of the world and for many products.

 

In the long term our outlook for food production looks poor unless and until there is a sufficient world shortage to provide a strong price incentive for production. The financial return from farming in Britain is now so minimal that increasing numbers of people are ceasing to produce basic commodities. No doubt there will always be imaginative entrepreneurs initiating the production of profitable niche crops, but it is hard to understand why owners of broad acres who receive substantial Single Farm Payments should bother to produce basic crops which are most likely to make a loss. If something is not done to rectify this situation it seems quite possible that food production in Britain could quietly die out, or at least be drastically reduced. It is just not sensible for Defra to suggest that we will be able to farm without subsidies, that Pillar One is not vital, and only Pillar Two is important. On many farms, the only profit comes from the Single Farm Payment. This is a fact which must be recognised.

 

A reduction of food production may well be brought about by the increasing reliance on highly technical methods. Sophisticated, and expensive, machinery is increasingly being employed, likewise irrigation and large amounts of different types of chemicals, including fertilisers. If/when supplies of these present "necessities" for production become difficult to obtain, it may be found that farmers have forgotten how to manage without them. To a considerable extent these modern aids are a substitute for hard work. But if the present willingness of many farmers to work extremely hard for long hours for a very small return diminishes, who will then produce food? Why has food production, and also its processing, always been among the lowest paid occupations? After all, food is essential to life.

 

Increased training is often advocated. Why? There is no point in training people to farm unless farming can produce an income comparable to other activities. (At the time of writing, a free lance farm worker is asking 8.50 per hour and a builder/decorator 14!) Who is going to train for farming rather than plumbing or electrical work?

 

Put bluntly, the profitability of farming will have to increase significantly if food production is to continue in quantity in the long term in Britain. The more so if production is prevented on suitable land in order to encourage wild life. Can we afford to rely almost entirely on imports? We think not.

 

What can/should Defra do? Most importantly of all, it should talk to farmers. It should employ people with farming knowledge and experience, and be headed by Ministers from farming constituencies who are able to talk to their constituents. Many farmers' sons and daughters now have degrees. They should be active in Defra, ensuring sensible policies. It is quite ridiculous that Defra should have to employ consultants to advise on farming. It should be the source of expertise itself. Until it can arrange to have sufficient expertise in house, it should be talking directly to farmers about their difficulties and making a real effort to understand and remedy the many problems that beset the production of food.

 

Defra should monitor farming statistics to make sure that the present decline in home production ceases and we no longer waste foreign currency on importing food unnecessarily. Food is going to be badly needed throughout the world.

 

Defra must also help and advise farmers on how to farm in a wildlife friendly way. Not putting conservation above food production, but studying how the two can be married together. It is not sensible to take prime land out of production, but farmers can be advised which portions of their land can best be left uncultivated, and in a state of nature for wildlife (only very rarely for badgers).

 

Is it really sensible to have privatised all sources of advice? Advice still has to be paid for out of some purse. Can it be guaranteed to be impartial, or even expert? After the war the National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAAS) did a grand job of helping farmers to modernise and become more productive. Many demonstrations were organised of good practice on successful farms. These proved most useful in disseminating practical information. Now help and advice seem to be fragmented among an infinite series of acronyms, and it is not easy to know where to turn. We do not even have County or Regional Agricultural Directors to answer questions, or otherwise advise us when problems or new policies arise.

 

Defra needs to put a great deal of thought into how to ensure the continuation of food production on less than perfect land. Farmers whose production is smaller, by virtue of poorer, steeper land, smaller area (which often goes with less productive land), and also young would be farmers getting onto the farming ladder, will need extra support. Land cannot be left derelict and empty of population, just because it is more difficult to farm. Its production will be needed when food gets short.

 

All land is not suitable for tourism. Well farmed land, especially if populated with healthy livestock, is likely to be attractive to tourists, thus possibly providing extra income. Conversely an abandoned and neglected countryside is not likely to be popular, so that there it is difficult to combine farming income and tourism. "Diversification", much advocated as an alternative source of income, does not necessarily produce food or care for the environment. How to support food produced on these less productive areas, without thereby encouraging buyers to pay correspondingly less for the produce is the conundrum that now faces the world, as well as Britain. Something more practical than Pillars One and Two must be devised to maintain food production in difficult terrain.

 

Globally we must not lapse into the position where highly developed and/or well capitalised nations produce cheap food to feed the world - thereby putting the world's peasant farmers out of business - in effect abolishing them. At the same time this mass production is destroying forests and causing disastrous climate change. This is the greatest danger we have to face. Present systems are not sustainable and will not produce enough food for everyone forever. Small scale farmers will be needed to produce the shortfall. They must not be destroyed by large competitors. Sensible advice on small scale farming must be available. The problem of rearranging the world's agricultural economics is too large and complex for the Family Farmers' Association to solve. But solved it must be if ever more people are not to go hungry. It is to be hoped that, somewhere, there are people who know the answer, and how to put it into practice.

 

Pippa Woods

Chairman

 

January 2009