The long and the short of food and farming

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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Flooding shows the need for public spending

In the months of December 2013 to February 2014 the United Kingdom experienced some of the worst flooding on record, and certainly the worst many living in those affected have seen. Whether this was a freak occurrence due to a combination of different weather systems or a taste of things to come as a result of climate change is yet to be seen. While one must hope it is the former, we must prepare for more such onslaughts in the future.

To me, however, the floods and their effect highlight a wider problem faced by those of us in rural areas and the callousness of the coalition’s austerity measures. Already we are poorly-served by public transport and the floods brought this to an absolute standstill. I knew people who could not attend university in Plymouth due to the train line being destroyed and I myself had to miss two days of work as buses were not running. Of course this cannot be blamed on the coalition, but the fact is even without the floods things like public transport in country areas are being hacked back to the bone, with private companies unwilling to run unprofitable routes without subsidies. This has an adverse affect not only on people who rely on transport for shopping or health and social care appointments, but whole communities who find themselves isolated from each other through lack of transport.

But on the subject of the extreme weather, what is almost indisputable is that some of the worst effects of the flooding could have been alleviated by proper investment and expenditure on flood prevention measures. Many activists have pointed to the fact that the Rivers Tone and Parrett in Somerset have not been dredged since the late 90s and the coalition failed to start again despite increased rainfall over the previous two years. Others have called for larger-scale operations such as the construction of drainage channels and areas allowed to go to wetland further upstream.

The people affected in these areas deserve to have their voice heard and their suggestions and solutions put forward. To this end, Labour Coast and Country have proposed holding a Flooding Conference, most likely in the South West, for local residents and activists to discuss the causes of and solutions to the extreme weather and its effects. A Labour government in 2015 must have a clear and informed plan to deal with these events should they happen again, and input and discussion from the ground by those affected is vital if we are to formulate serious and co-ordinated prevention and response measures.

Sam Fawcett is a Labour activist in Somerset and deputy-editor of the Young Fabians Magazine, ‘Anticipations’.
Twitter: @SamFawcett92