The challenge for farming often gets defined in the ‘here and now’: the dairy crisis of 2012, the continuing impacts of the Somerset floods, last year’s cheap imports of lamb or this year’s beef prices, or just the need to get this season’s crops safely in and put a smile on the bank manager’s face. These immediate challenges for today always need our urgent attention, or there is no tomorrow to worry about.

But tomorrow does need our attention too, with challenges including: climate change; rising agricultural input and energy costs; competition for water and water scarcity; competition for agricultural land from other uses; declining agricultural productivity; and pressures on the natural environment and ecosystem.

Clearly, one of the biggest challenges is feeding the growing world population while also satisfying the domestic and international demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food. For farming in the United Kingdom this is a golden opportunity, boosting our markets by demonstrating the highest standards in our food production from farm through to processing and manufacturing and all the way to the consumer.

The rising global population and the increasingly westernised diets of nations with growing populations and disposable incomes means that we have a chance – and even an obligation – to play our part in feeding the world, as well our own consumers in the UK and European Union. New markets are opening up with huge export opportunities not only for our produce but for our knowledge and expertise in food, agricultural science and research and development.

This means rethinking the way we do agriculture: increasing agricultural productivity and innovation, not simply production levels per se; at the same time being unashamedly ambitious about protecting and enhancing our natural environment and environmental services; shifting the narrative from the cheapest possible food and a race to the bottom (horsemeat!) to good, affordable food (safe, nutritious, traceable, free from criminality and exploitation of people or animals etc) and a race to the top; using leadership on production standards and animal welfare to promote our produce overseas; and being open on evidence to traditional and innovative technologies, which can help us feed the UK and the world sustainably, while making sure everyone – especially developing nations – are not just passive recipients of new technologies.

One element of our rethinking is long overdue. We have to change those parts of food and farming in which low pay and poor conditions have persisted for generations, where rogue gangmasters can infiltrate and agency workers dominate our production lines and fields, and where there is exploitation of migrant workers here or vulnerable people overseas hidden in long and complex supply chains. People and communities suffer and so does the reputation of the industry. So Labour will tackle the overuse and misuse of agency workers and migrant workers in all sectors, support the work of the Gangmasters Agency and all efforts to tackle exploitation and slavery, strengthen the national minimum wage and enforce it better, and actively encourage the take up of a living wage through fiscal and other measures. This goes alongside investment in skills and training. It is only fair that all who have a hand in producing our food share fairly in the rewards.

Of course, common agricultural policy reform has the ‘here and now’ as well as the longer-term issues to work through. The current reforms are disappointing, and the lack of UK leadership at an EU level over the last four years is telling. What happened to simplification? What happened to moving towards a more competitive European farming freed from the market distortions of subsidy? A more level-laying field? Ministers (and more importantly farmers) are going to have their hands full unravelling the added bureaucracy and complexity and costs.

It may seem a long way away, but actually, government needs to start working at a UK and EU level on the next stage of reform and one that genuinely moves us towards a simplified CAP with a more competitive agriculture. That opportunity has been missed this time and a lot of effort from farmers and government wasted.

But let me make clear, in the best interest of UK food and farming we need to be at the heart of the EU, leading the debate and setting the agenda: with the strategic parameters (the ‘level playing field’) set at an EU level but with greater subsidiarity for the UK and the nations and regions to manage their own farming; benefitting from access to the EU market and also the EU-negotiated access to international markets; working collaboratively towards a more competitive agriculture less reliant on subsidy; playing our part in supporting the agriculture of developing nations and helping feed the world population.

In all these aspects we need strong leadership, long-term vision, and we need a plan of action to make things happen. Because in addition to the economic potential, food and farming touches people’s lives intimately in ways that no other sector does: in health and nutrition, in culture and diet, in linking people with place, in supporting rural communities, managing conflicting land uses, in reducing waste and carbon impact and so much more.

That is why we produced Food 2030 in January 2010 before we left government. It was a landmark strategy and is still relevant, even though this government left it on the shelf to gather dust. Its time will come.

Labour would also develop with the sector an economic growth strategy based on four key pillars: investing in people through skills and training; driving innovation in production; an active government that works with farmers and food producers to put in place a long-term strategy taking us to 2030; and an industry and government that look out to the world with confidence.

Food and farming have massive potential for boosting economic growth, and the rewards of that growth should be shared along the whole supply chain. We can simultaneously meet the major environmental and societal challenges. That is not just an exciting prospect. It is something we have to do – together.

First published by Progress at: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/08/13/the-long-and-the-short-of-food-and-farming/

Huw Irranca-Davies MP is Shadow Minister for Food and Farming

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.

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