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Production, protection and prices: UK food policy is in a perilous state

Farmers rightly want fair prices but putting red lines through green rules won’t help; in fact it will put UK food security and our countryside at risk. By David Burrows. 

‘Banana prices’. The first entry of Defra’s daily update email on Tuesday last week had details of the cost and country of origin of bananas. The irony. This is the fruit that often conjures memories of Britain’s fractious relationship with the EU and the tenuous stories that used to be peddled about their bendiness (including by the former UK prime minister, Boris Johnson). And this was the morning that the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was to become the first in over 15 years to address the annual conference of the National Farmers Union (NFU). His job was to reassure farmers that post-Brexit agricultural policy is in safe hands. 

The pressroom was packed. National newspaper journalists jostled for seats with the editors and teams of writers from the likes of Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian as they filled up on rolls stuffed with (so the menus read) local bacon and sausages (no place here for what one farmer later called the “dying embers” of investment in the plant-based alternative movement). These two days were after all to be all about British food produced by British farmers; and a fond farewell to Minette Batters, the outgoing president. “I have given everything I personally can to this organisation,” she told a farming podcast in the run-up to the event. 

No one can doubt that. Her opening address was a rousing, emotional one. She talked of farmers’ mental health – short and mid-term confidence is at record lows – but how the public’s support for the sector is at an all-time high. Last year, farming rose to second in the list of professions most valued by the public, behind only nursing. “I’m proud of that,” Batters said, “I hope you are too – you should be, you’ve earned that respect and recognition. That’s something our politicians should remember too,” she added, eyeing the Defra ministerial team that had come out in force to support Sunak.

Dry eyes

She talked politics and pressure. Batters and her team had helped British people “take back control and say no to the chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef” that would have arrived in a US trade deal. There was much still to fight for, she said, including the future of farm payments and the agri-environment schemes replacing the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The past few years have been “frustrating”, admitted Sunak. “[CAP] did little for food productivity or the environment.”

The chaos created since the Brexit vote to ‘take back control’ has been clear to see; the government’s strategy to find a way through it, far less so. No-one appears happy. Sunak admitted the balance isn’t right. He is not wrong. The trouble is, farmers feel agricultural policy, including those subsidies, have tipped too far towards environmental protection rather than production, while NGOs will say it still doesn’t do enough for biodiversity (of which a lack of puts food production further at risk too).

Batters captured the zeitgeist, explaining how food production has become the “poor relation” to environmental protection. “The government has legally binding targets to grow more trees,” but “just one third as many apple trees were planted in 2023 as growers had planned”. Indeed, the message was clear: farmers need more money if they are going to produce more food. Around £4.5bn, according to the calculations the NFU has commissioned.

Food security was the term on everyone’s lips. But this is an environment where it is conflated with food production. The government’s announcement of a new annual food security index will do little to address the gaping hole in food policy. Nor will it help reverse long-term decline in farmland wildlife, restore protected habitats to good condition, or stop the pollution pouring into waterways.  

The pollution from agriculture and from rural land is “roughly equal” to that coming from the water industry, explained Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency. He was being generous: it is actually worse, according to the data Lovell presented. What’s more, water companies are under immense public and political pressure to improve, as is the Environment Agency to make sure they do. The spread of sewage scandals has created a stink but Lovell warned farmers that they must wake up and smell it too. It’s not entirely their fault.

Eye on the Wye

The weekend before the conference The Telegraph ran a piece describing that the demand for cheap chicken “ran rampant” across Britain. At the heart of this new (and growing) scandal is the River Wye, which is being choked by algal blooms that are fed by pollution from surrounding intensive poultry farms. Moy Park (owned by JBS), 2 Sisters Food Group, Cranswick and Avara all get an unwanted mention, as does Tesco. Blaming farmers for this mess is too simplistic, as Ruth Westcott from Sustain tried to explain. “My concern is that it’s the wrong people that are getting the flack for this,” she said. “The farmers are basically being left to deal with the s— and not given viable ways to be more sustainable.”

Indeed, farmers need fair prices. They can’t go green if they’re in the red. But care must be taken to ensure that policymakers don’t see this as an excuse to water down rules on environmental protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to save more farmers from going under. The breakdown of the ecology within and around the Wye is testament to the breakdown of our food system writ large. 

And Sunak’s plan? To offer slightly higher subsidies, plus grants to build “bigger” farm shops and to ask farmers to keep doing what they do for the love of it rather than a decent return. If farmers wanted a reason to protest that last comment was as good as any. Speaking to the media afterwards, Batters admitted a “nervousness” about producers here following those in Europe’s lead and demonstrating – especially given that public support can “quickly” be lost if protestors interfere with people’s daily lives and “could take years to recover from”.

Some 94% of respondents to a survey carried out by Deltapoll and published at the conference said it is important the government backs British farming and food production. The prime minister insisted that’s the case. “I’ve got your back,” he said at the conclusion of his speech. But there is no plan. Labour, as Footprint has reported, are also short of ideas. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile have offered to inject another £1bn into the agricultural budget.

Eat your meat

The government’s approach to food policy appears to be going backwards rather than forwards (as was the promise of Brexit). There is no plan, and as Kate Nicholls, chief executive at UKHospitality suggested: questions must be asked about whether the government, through public procurement, pays a fair price for the food it buys. 

Nicholls, who also said companies should not be “ashamed” of imports that match the standards here, was involved in a future of food session with Sarah Bradbury, CEO at the IGD, and Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency. They tackled labelling – including eco-scores – but danced carefully around the issue of meat consumption. This of course remains a “red line” for Batters and the NFU. “Our red line is that we are not downsizing livestock and dairy,” Batters told Farmers Guardian earlier this month. Sunak took just 90 seconds to agree with her. “[I’ve] enjoyed our high-quality British meat – which let me tell you we’ll continue supporting people to eat.”

Expect politicians up and down the country to agree with that sentiment in the coming months. Farmers have become a key vote (96 of the 100 most rural seats are in the hands of Conservatives currently but half those are forecast to be lost in this year’s expected election). Politicians know this – and that could be bad news for food policy. Production trumps environmental protection, while consumption trumps climate. We are in a perilous, politicised period for food policy.

  1. David Read Avatar

    Really excellent piece David.

    Hopefully our children and grandchildren will take a more enlightened approach. I feel it will take that long. They will certainly look back at these times and say “how on earth did they perpetuate a broken system for such a long time?.”