Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by Philip Morton (AB57)

Dear Sirs

I am writing principally as a consumer of Agriculture in its full meaning to cover biodiversity, soil quality, sustainability, public access, public subsidies, public goods and quality of the final product – food. I was brought up in a rural community and after studying in London returned to work in agriculture and food manufacture for 35 years. Working with a wide range of farmers, from people who owned no land but rented hundreds of acres for monocrop production, to traditional family owned mixed farms I appreciate that the supply chain is finely tuned to the demands of customers. For suppliers the customers are the large Food Manufacturers or the retail giants who draw up specifications to meet their brands requirements. Farmers are alive to these different standards and operate their business flexibly to fit in with specifications. The same is true of their response to public subsidies provided they are confident the subsidies can complement commercial needs and can be relied on to last for sufficient payback for any investment needed.

Regardless of Brexit it is time to pursue the policy outlined by EFRA where "healthy food should be supported as a public good under a new farm support model". I would like to highlight a number of points in the production process which are critical to this policy.

Soil Quality

In arable areas intensive cropping has provided cheap food but soil quality has fallen dramatically to the point where there is no soil life and crops are totally reliant on artificial fertiliser. As a result the crops need trace elements, sprays and top dressings to achieve the yields required. Increasingly there is a need for irrigation to provide security but this further degrades soil quality. This is a highly cost efficient process given market arrangements at present, but a number of negative externalities are not included at present. This needs to include the costs of degrading soil quality, fertiliser run off, pesticide damage to all life, ranging from nematodes and insects up to humans. At present this style of farming produces low cost crops but once all externalities are included this may not be so attractive to all parts of the supply chain.

GM

The benefits of GM have not been properly explained to the general public and requires a government led debate with neutral science to avoid the problems encountered by Monsanto. Selective breeding using genes of the same species is simply equivalent to present breeding and should be developed as fast as possible. Breeding across species is more problematic and should be rolled out more gradually, if at all.

Antibiotics

I have little experience of poultry and meat production but am extremely concerned about the use of antibiotics in the food production chain. For individual farmers there is every incentive to use "extra" antibiotics just to make sure, as is done with fertiliser in crop production. The prospect of losing the use of antibiotics, due to overuse in farming, is such a huge externality that it may render a certain type of food production unviable. We need to prepare for this and start to subsidise the alternatives which would be extensive poultry production, grazed cattle and more field pig herds. The description of poultry production in Big Chicken highlights the issues and points out solutions to reduce the use of antibiotics.

Existing subsidies

The single payment scheme based on land ownership has helped double the price of land and so increase rents to active farmers raising the price of food. This needs to be phased out as soon as possible, why not 3 years rather than 7 as there are no commercial arrangements of such length. Given the generous tax arrangements around land it is not surprising that wealthy individuals have bought land pushing up food prices further. Farmers also benefit from red diesel and depreciation of machinery. The red diesel subsidy should be phased out over a period of time to help reduce the carbon footprint. Similarly, investment in machinery is good but does nothing for employment and may be less cost effective once all externalities are introduced.

Public Access

Present schemes provide access but often the areas are remote, not linked to existing footpaths and with no provision for car parking. Extra incentives should be provided where the landowner can make the areas more accessible and be encouraged to work with neighbours to provide a meaningful walk. Some farms have led the way by encouraging greater access with commercial benefits that I believe are still hugely under exploited.

Trade

We cannot be self sufficient and should embrace Free Trade to maximise production where we have natural advantages. Certain crops such as sugar will be contested but sugar cane should be free to be traded and sugar beet production will have to adjust accordingly. This will require a level playing field with our trading partners which will be a challenge to adopt and implement. If Brexit proceeds we will have a number of new different partners to deal with and the issues around food quality standards and labelling will need to be fully transparent. UK farming should not have to compete on uneven standards but must accept the competition that fair regulated trade will bring.

Food Quality

The major Public Good is to produce healthy food. At present the market increasingly produces cheap attractive processed food that does not fit the description of being healthy. Science investigating the link between processed food and our health is at an early stage but it is clear that sugar, salt and fat in processed foods may be very tasty but are not providing a balanced diet. We need to change the culture and market standards that have encouraged the development of this style of food. There needs to be a discussion around standards and a clear labelling system that allows consumers to make an informed choice. Extra labelling has been adopted with gluten free products and could be replicated for antibiotics, grass fed cattle, GM etc to develop markets. This needs to run alongside a Public Health programme in schools and the community whereby consumers become more informed of the activities in the food supply chain. I am sure there will be many people who will need to choose low cost options but standards on this need to be raised by informed government action. This food will be produced in large intensive units but we must avoid a race to the bottom on standards, as exemplified by certain units in the USA.

Enforcement

Whatever new Food policies and subsidies are adopted it will be critical to ensure standards are upheld. Organisations such as LEAF perform a role but there is a need for a body with real teeth and resources to operate across the food chain. There will be a range of farm types seeking subsidies of a variable nature and it is encouraging that local arrangements may be possible. This is appropriate for an industry with such variation as farming but will increase the need for an effective inspectorate. This needs to include unarranged audits and full checking of aspects such as soil quality, impact of farms on water quality, rivers and aquifers.

Conclusion

There is an opportunity to increase diversity in agriculture with plans developed and agreed at a more local level than in the past, to reflect climatic and soil conditions. Included in this should be communication with consumers in terms of access and Open days to showcase agricultural production. To contribute to Public Health there needs to be minimum enforceable standards across all food presented to the consumer with clear labelling standards. The consumer standards and farm plans need to be developed and monitored by a fully resourced state body covering food from farm to the consumer. This will need to include unheralded farm visits to properly monitor environmental issues and ensure reality matches farm plans.

November 2018

 

Prepared 13th November 2018