Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Susan Atkinson, Woodside Farm, South Nottinghamshire

1. The environmental and climate change impacts need to be addressed at a local level rather than the "one size fits all" policies that farmers now have to cope with that are set at national and /or EU level. Every farmer knows that no two fields are alike so needs policies that allow them to manage their farms in the best way possible and not have to try to fit them into schemes devised hundreds of miles away. The UK has a varied landscape and it all should be preserved though present schemes favour hedgerows only. Those areas that have stone walls or ditches as field boundaries need schemes that maintain these as they are all part of the country’s history and traditions, as well as forming landscapes the general public enjoy. Any scheme should be reviewed very regularly as climate change has already demonstrated that no model is going to predict what will happen with any degree of certainty. As our farm is in the HLS scheme we have a very knowledgeable advisor from Natural England whom I can contact at any time and who knows our farm. Every farmer should have a similar advisor in the future to ensure each farm is managed in the best possible way under all climatic conditions. That will ensure the land produces as much as is possible for food and fuel.

2. No matter how much food is produced sustain ably or how low the farmgate price, people will not make sustainable choices about food unless they are convinced that is the right thing to do and are able to live a lifestyle that enables them to do so. The population of this country hardly knows where any of the food it eats is produced or where it comes from. For decades they have been used to cheap food, with the average household spend on food consistently dropping as a percentage of income and are reluctant to accept a different scenario, especially as it involves lifestyle change. Cooking skills have declined so that many do not know how to cook using fresh ingredients. Many families never eat a meal together so in those situations it is not worth cooking a meal which only one person will eat fresh and the rest will re-heat or simply choose to throw away in favour of a fast food option. It is well known that people in the UK (at least those who have jobs) work the longest hours in the EU yet are the least productive. People need to be re-connected to the food system. The sales of vegetable seeds overtook those of flowers last year and this trend needs to be encouraged. As many people as possible should grow at least some of the food in gardens, allotments or other schemes. The media can be used to teach about food matters in general and explain just why habits need to change etc. If families started to cook using fresh ingredients and eating together it may help greatly in reducing the amount of food thrown away, which is another area of increasing concern. The scheduling move of the BBC’s Countryfile programme has already caused people to think more about how food is produced judging by comments made to me.

3. No plan for the future can be made without taking stock of the present situation. The biggest problem for the sustainability of the food system in the UK is that agriculture is apparently in terminal decline in this country. The average age of UK farmers is 59, with about 30% already drawing old age pension and a dearth of young people entering the industry. For the last two years it has been estimated that UK farming needed 60,000 young people entering the industry within ten years, which now makes it 60,000 in the next eight years. Otherwise UK agriculture could collapse altogether. Any further decline in farmer numbers risks the industry falling below critical mass, when so few farmers remain that the infrastructure supporting agriculture becomes uneconomic to run and so collapses, leading to further problems in the rest of the UK economy. There are ever fewer tenancies available and most land that is let is on FBT’s that last for an average of five years. Land prices have risen dramatically as it is seen as an "investment" so unless a young person inherits they will not be able to buy land as even at the present high prices for cereals, the returns will not cover the mortgage repayments let alone allow anyone to make a living. Then there is the question of where they will live due to the equally high prices of housing in rural areas and, of course, a farmer needs buildings of various descriptions to house his livestock and machinery. If he does not live near to those buildings there is increased risk due to the rising levels of rural crime, which in turn increases the cost of insurance. In a country that aspires to owner- occupiers of property as the norm, it is useless to expect young people to stay in an industry that does not allow them to proceed up the property ladder to this goal, especially as so many tenant farmers at present cannot afford to retire.

4. On top of all this there is the general attitude to manual work in this country. Our young friends and relatives have told us that they have gone through their education being taught that manual work is only for those who are too stupid or too lazy to do otherwise. Added to this is the regulatory burden which has also increased dramatically in recent years. Farmers do not like being in the office – they would not be in the industry if they did not want to work outdoors and a high proportion are dyslexic. They also work long hours and the paperwork is a disproportionally heavy burden when faced at the end of a long day. It is the most multi skilled occupation and yet the return on capital is only about 3%, compared to 500% for Tesco. This means that, apart from the last couple of years, any farmer would be better off selling up and putting the money in the bank, so it is little wonder that farming parents have actively encouraged their children into other occupations. Any young person who is likely to succeed in farming will succeed in any other occupation they enter, where they will enjoy a far better lifestyle and will probably aspire to and obtain a house with a few acres which they can enjoy.

5. As the UK has a largely urban population, it needs food to be affordable for all while at the same time ensuring supplies of food are maintained. The globalisation agenda that has been followed in recent decades is still regarded as being the best way to ensure this, with the mistaken belief that food would be produced most efficiently (i.e. cheaply) elsewhere while the UK became a "service" economy, with whatever farming that did survive here being large commodity producers or those supplying niche markets. The population was led to believe that there would always be plenty of cheap food available. Recent events are showing this is not the case but it will be a while before the majority realise it. Somehow the present system has to be altered into a more sustainable one without causing panic amongst the general public about food supplies when they are already under stress through rising fuel prices, economic recession and rising unemployment. That means all the facts need to be made public and any changes openly debated so that hopefully a broad consensus of opinion can be reached.

6. It is now recognised that farming produces public goods as well as food. In order to keep prices for food to the public down so as to benefit our urban populations, public goods should continue to be paid for from the public purse. However, that is all that should be paid for this way. The food farmers produce should be sold at a price from the farm that gives a reasonable profit to the farmer. The long overdue ombudsman should be in post as soon as possible and the present system that allows produce to leave farms at less than cost price stopped. It only adds to the profits of the already profitable supermarkets and food manufacturers while many farmers, who take all the risks in producing the food, live in poverty. Not only would farmers then have a decent standard of living, but in turn it would help with the governments stated aim of rebalancing the economy as farmers would have more money to invest in their businesses, which in turn would stimulate more jobs in the agricultural infrastructure and the wider economy.

7. The push towards ever larger, supposedly more "efficient" farms has also resulted in ever larger machinery being manufactured for such farms at the expense of implements suitable for smaller farms and fields. Small farms were encouraged to rely on contractors more and more as a means to be more efficient and to keep their costs down, or to form a machinery ring and share kit between several farms. Four wet harvests in succession have shown the weaknesses of these arrangements as combines have been unable to move from farm to farm as quickly as planned due to wet weather and ground conditions being too muddy to allow the large combines to operate. Many farmers were forced to watch as crops that were overdue for being harvested becoming blacker due to increasing levels of disease caused by the wet weather. This has resulted in farmers looking for older, smaller combines to buy, so that our 28 year old machine has now more than doubled in value from the price we paid for it in 2000. It is made by a German firm called Claas which in recent years has started making smaller combines again as it recognised the very large machines are not suitable for small fields as they would spend more time turning than working. The smallest combine in this new range is designed for farmers who grow about 120 acres of combinable crops, as we do ourselves, but as it is priced at £130,000 we will never be able to afford to buy one. If the UK landscape is to retain the pattern of small fields that cover most of it, farmers need to be able to find and afford to buy machines that are suitable.

8. The localism agenda will not succeed unless local authorities are committed to it themselves. If they do not source food etc from local suppliers but are driven by purchase costs only there will be a re-run of what has occurred at national level for many years, that is, the high animal welfare standards required in the UK put up the costs of UK farmers while government bodies such as the M.O.D. sourced the food it bought from abroad. Recent decades have seen the UK’s self sufficiency in food decline while more and more has been imported each year that is produced by methods illegal in this country. If local authorities source foodstuffs from local producers and show benefits from so doing (costs and others) then the general public will be more inclined to follow suit. Government procurement practises also need to do the same thing.

24 March 2011