Defra – can the department of delay finally deliver?

The UK’s food system is in chaos with shelves bare and egg and pig producers in turmoil. Don’t worry though because we can all survive on turnips and Mexican beef. By David Burrows.

“We need a plan that pre-empts crises rather than repeatedly runs into them.” The words of Minette Batter, president of the NFU, in her speech at the union’s annual conference in 2022. At the time, it was the pig sector under pressure – 200,000 animals were backed up on farms and 40,000 had already been culled, the meat wasted. “This truly is an utter disgrace and a disaster for the pig industry,” Batters said as she took aim at dithering from Defra, the department responsible for environment, food and rural affairs.

One year on, have lessons been learned? If only. As farmers descended on Birmingham last week for this year’s NFU conference it was the fresh produce sector fighting for its life. Some supermarkets have put limits on the sale of certain fruit and vegetables as food security and sustainability remain stuck firmly in the spotlight.  

There is, too, the ongoing crisis in domestic egg production. The national flock is down to a low of 34 million birds as avian flu and rising feed and fuel prices leave producers wondering whether it’s worth the bother anymore. Recent analysis of the free-range egg sector, reported by Poultry News, showed the average producer is losing 10.27p per dozen eggs. There is much talk of emulating the dairy sector, which in 2007 negotiated contracts that took into account fluctuating feed and other input costs. “We want to avoid the nightmare of last summer and losing 40p per dozen,” said Robert Gooch, chief executive at the British Free Range Producers Association (BFREPA), recently. 

But have no fear over the future of food because Rishi (Sunak, prime minister), Thérèse (Coffey, environment secretary) and Mark (Spencer, farming minister) are here. Or at least Thérèse and Mark are. Rishi opted to address the annual gathering of farmers via video. “I wanted to send this message to simply say ‘thank you’,” he said. To which those present will have perhaps muttered another two-word phrase also ending in ‘you’.

And that’s before Sunak explained, rather cringingly, how he had “even rolled up my sleeves and done the early morning milking in Wensleydale, so I know how important your work is and I know that it is more than just work, it’s a way of life that is passed down through the generations”. A way of life that under his and his predecessors’ watch is slowly dying from government inaction.

Hell’s bells

Coffey seems to filter out all the alarm bells, though. “I am not sure we are seeing a market failure with poultry,” she told the NFU in a sit-down Q&A with Batters, who almost fell off her chair. There were a billion fewer eggs produced here in 2022 compared 2019, the NFU president contested. Coffey remained unflustered, drifting off to talk about the need to stop scaring people about all this stuff. “We shouldn’t be putting ideas into people’s minds that somehow food is not safe.”

Coffey’s apparent blindness to the scale of this food system crisis, and others (think sewage being pumped into rivers; air and plastic pollution; forever chemicals; biodiversity loss; climate change, even?) should be a worry to us all. “I don’t even know how to respond to some of these things anymore. It’s just so absurd,” noted one commentator (and that was before Coffey suggested we should not worry about tomatoes and lettuce and instead now be eating seasonal vegetables like turnips).

In her speech to the conference the environment secretary noted how determined she is that “we will be the department that delivers”. But it hasn’t. And few are confident it ever will. It is time for change at Defra, said investment group Shore Capital in a scathing update on the UK food system. Clear warnings have for too long been ignored.

“[…] the UK government showed little to no interest in the security of food supplies or the viability and progression of its home food system. That is government, not market, failure,” wrote Shore Capital research analyst Clive Black, who took aim not just at ministers but civil servants too. The cries from farmers and processors over the problems facing the pig industry due to a lack of labour at abattoirs were loud and clear. “Officials should be ahead of the curve on such matters, not dragged kicking and screaming when times are truly desperate,” Black wrote.

Defra has dithered and delayed over everything from farm subsidies and packaging to chemical strategies and water pollution. Even when it has good ideas, such as the environmental land management schemes, delivery has been delayed and the final products are often underpowered. Speaking of a lack of oomph: the national food strategy is a prime example of a government that has long failed to understand food. “Conference, we are on a journey in agriculture,” said Coffey (who would do well to wake up and smell it). 

Everywhere you look there is a desperate need for better regulation – the kind the UK can in theory more easily deliver now it is divorced from a regime that required the ok from 27 other countries. 

Bargain beef

Which brings us to Spencer, who is keen for Mexican beef to come our way as part of a new trade deal. “We have to be fair to everyone; we can’t say we will sell milk to you but we won’t buy your beef.” But Mexican beef is more carbon-intense than that reared here, according to the Green Alliance, a think tank. Farmers highlighted links to deforestation and called for a tough stance from government on such imports. 

Lord Deben, chair of the climate change committee, was moved to write to the farming minister. “The UK cannot reach our legal commitments and international obligations under the agreements at Paris and Glasgow unless our agriculture sector plays its part. That must not be compromised by a decision to allow the importation of meat with a higher carbon footprint than our own,” he wrote last week, adding that consumption of meat also needs to fall by at least 20% by 2030 to meet the government’s own carbon budgets.

Ministers aren’t buying that though. Earlier this month, Coffey reassured the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) winter conference in Washington that she is “not going all vegan or vegetarian on you. Meat is certainly still very much on my dietary plate.” This will resonate with livestock farmers here, too, but their patience is wearing thin – there has been too much talk and too little action on farming and food policy.

Will Labour do any better? Sir Keir Starmer appears to be a shoe-in for Number 10 and he used his (in person) NFU conference speech to pledge that a Labour government would uphold UK food standards (the ones that are seemingly ebbing away as imports plug the gap from domestic producers giving up). 

Campaigners and farmers alike will spot an opportunity to start (almost) afresh. Shaun Spiers, executive director, Green Alliance, said Starmer must now turn his attention to the nature crisis and the role farming will play in restoring health to our natural world. “Our farmers need a stable climate, healthy soils, clean rivers and abundant nature – these are the foundations of our food security,” added WWF chief executive Tanya Steele.

Spencer echoed such sentiments in his speech at the conference, where he announced that more than £168m in grants will be available to farmers this year to drive innovation, support food production, improve animal health and welfare and protect the environment. Investment in innovation is welcome but there is a sense that the government is still casting around for silver bullets to drive down emissions and better protect biodiversity.

Starmer’s stage left

The climate and nature crises are severe and interlinked. Food businesses, too, would do well to understand this – the ecological resources on which food industry business models are dependent are fast disappearing, while 2022 was the year that the potential impact of climate change “really hit home”, said Batters in her conference speech. The clock is ticking on climate, she warned, as well as for farmers and the country. Will Conservative ministers hear it before it’s too late? With Starmer waiting in the wings they may have already lost their chance.

Comments are closed.