DEFRA’s much-awaited Food and Farming Plan could offer strong support for Britain’s embattled farmers – but the EU referendum has put it on the back burner.
The EU referendum has much to answer for. Ever since the Remain and Leave campaigns were launched in earnest in February the mill of domestic policy making has ground to a near halt. Plans have been parked, strategies have stalled and bills have been blunted as the energies of both the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues – EU loyalists and rebels – have been diverted towards the campaign trail.
Two highly anticipated food policies are among the casualties: the Department of Health’s Childhood Obesity Strategy and DEFRA’s 25-Year Plan for Food and Farming, both of which were slated for release early this year and both of which have seemingly been kicked into the long grass until after the vote on 23 June (the former has already been officially postponed until the summer while a DEFRA spokesman says, somewhat cryptically, that the latter is not “imminent” but will be published “soon”).
The fact the two strategies are being developed independently of one another is a source of great frustration for many NGOs working in the food sphere which believe that policies addressing consumption and production cannot be separated. Even more incongruous is the fact that DEFRA is developing its Food and Farming Plan independently of a 25-year Environment Plan despite the clear reliance of agriculture on a healthy environment.
In fact, the lack of joined-up policy-making should surprise nobody. The Food and Farming Plan has a very clear purpose that has little to do with health or the environment. The plan is the Conservative Party’s opportunity to show its support for UK farmers at a time when the government’s inability to suppress the forces of global markets has been brutally exposed by the crisis in the dairy industry.
It also represents a rare chance for DEFRA to shed its image as a reactionary, firefighting department and put forward a vision for food and farming that contributes to the government’s overarching growth agenda. With its enforcement budget being cut to the bone, such strategic thinking is vital if DEFRA is to show its worth to the many Conservative MPs who would happily see the department dissolved entirely.
The result will be a plan that is unashamedly pro-industry, designed to boost growth and competitiveness by focusing on increasing exports and cutting regulation.
Industry, most notably the National Farmers’ Union, has been heavily involved in developing the content of the plan, which has not gone out for public consultation (although a select group of NGOs have been invited to comment on an early draft). Any complaints about the plan’s narrowness of vision, however, are likely to fall on deaf ears.
When it is finally published, the plan is likely to find strong support within the food and farming community. Restless farmers may be placated by its aim to strengthen the British food brand at home and abroad (a Great British Food Unit has been established within DEFRA to do just that), while foodservice operators will surely welcome commitments from retailers and manufacturers to boost skills and apprenticeships.
The devil as ever will lie in the detail. And the jury remains out on whether a plan that sees growth and competitiveness as a proxy for long-term sustainability of UK supply will prove fit to tackle the complexities of 21st-century food security; complexities that make the UK’s potential extrication from the EU seem like a walk in the park.