If DEFRA is to regain respect, it must become once again a Ministry of Agriculture, paid for by taxpayers to help those taxpayers who look after the landscape and provide the nation's food.
28 January 2010 ~ Farmers, food producers and other rural businesses left with a £23 million bill dealing with unnecessary regulation.
The Western Morning News today reports that a statement slipped out on the DEFRA website shows that to date Defra have delivered only a 16 per cent reduction in administrative burdens. Its target to cut "administrative burdens" by 25 per cent by May this year will be missed.
Ian Johnson, South West spokesman for the NFU commented:
"If farmers are told they have to do something, they have to do it. It seems if Defra say they are going to do something and don't, they don't seem to suffer any ill-effects."Read article
January 26th 2010 ~ Anthony Gibson on Hilary Benn's Food 2030 strategy paper
See his comment at Meat Trade News Extract:
"... The track record of Defra and its current Secretary of State is not such as to inspire much confidence in a Damascene conversion when it comes to the value of British agriculture's productive core.Read in full
The Press release which accompanied its publication seemed to confirm my worst fears. It was headed: "How consumers can help secure Britain's food supplies." Not farmers, you will notice, but consumers. I could almost imagine the dreaded f-word being scratched out by some spin doctor at No 10.
Nor was the Prime Ministerial foreword any more encouraging. Gordon Brown informs us that the role for British food producers is to "reduce the impact they have on the environment, manage natural resources and bio-diversity even better and adapt to a changing climate". No mention at all of increasing production so as to reduce our dependence on increasingly scarce and expensive imports.
It reminded me of that notorious policy statement on hill farming, which listed all of things that hill farmers provide - landscape management, clean water, carbon sequestration, healthy livestock, community engagement, renewable energy - but failed entirely to mention the production of food.
But from that point onwards, it improves, starting at the unlikely point of Mr Benn's vision for the future:
"Consumers are informed, can choose and afford healthy sustainable food. This demand is met by profitable, competitive, highly skilled and resilient farming, fishery and food businesses, supported by first-class research and development."It might have been improved by the addition of the words "locally produced" in the reference to food, but that apart, it seems to me to be exactly what farmers have been waiting to hear, and especially in its use of that crucial adjective "profitable"......
I was reassured by the statement that:
"UK action on climate change should not result in food production and the associated greenhouse-gas emissions moving to other countries."The lessons taught by unilateral animal-welfare measures appear to have been learned.
I have to say that once I'd got past the Gordon Brown foreword, I could find very little in the paper with which to disagree. When it comes to the value of competitive, profitable, sustainable domestic food production, it really does appear to be a case of message received and understood..... the next time some bright spark suggests a new raft of regulations, or the abandonment of a stretch of farmland to the sea, or a tax on fertilisers, or a change to the planning guidelines, the productive value of agriculture will be given its proper weight in the decision-making process. The last 20 years has seen that value denigrated or ignored, with grievous consequences for the industry's capacity and morale. It may take another 20 years to make good the damage."
January 4 2010 ~DEFRA provides funding for the testing of ivory samples - to begin by mid 2010 following a validation study
The illegal poaching of elephant tusks threatens elephant populations. It is good to see that DEFRA is providing funds for a new forensic test developed by Forensic zoologist Ross McEwing of Edinburgh Zoo. If an ivory sample displays a high level of carbon 14 then it proves it came from an animal alive after the introduction of nuclear testing and is therefore being sold illegally. The Telegraph reports.
January 4 2010 ~ "the report will urge consumers not to insist on buying locally-produced food, because doing so would reduce the prosperity of farmers in developing countries."
DEFRA's forthcoming food strategy paper will - extraordinarily - dismiss the Professor Tim Lang's concept of "food miles" - reported the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It also ignores what NGOs have been saying; how very far from increasing the prosperity of farmers in developing countries buying practices with overseas suppliers still are.
In the Competition Commission Inquiry into the Groceries Market - in the section entitled '3rd Party Submissions from NGOs and Charitable Organisations', evidence given in this letter from 12 NGOs shows that workers in exporting countries are getting a wage - but a very poor one. The letter speaks of
"detrimental impacts of such buying practices on farmers, farm workers and suppliers in developing countries, as well as on levels of poverty more generally, are well documented. They include lower pay, longer hours, poor health and safety conditions and increased use of temporary contracts for workers, as well as increased vulnerability and barriers to entry for small producers."A separate matter is the increasingly fragile nature of these long distance supply lines. As we reported in 2008, when the prices of oil and commodities shot up the shutters came down in some of the exporting countries in the developing world. On the whole, in this sort of crisis, governments prefer to feed their populations rather than have food riots.
January 4th 2010 ~ DEFRA report will tell us to accept GM
The Sunday Telegraph says that DEFRA's comprehensive food strategy for the next 20 years, to be unveiled this week, will tell the public that it "must accept genetically-modified food." Again, this ignores what many experts are saying.
Last July, the Sustainable Development Commission's recommendations to Government Food Security and Sustainability: The perfect fit (pdf), led by Professor Tim Lang, said of GM that some people regard
" .. technologies such as genetic modification and a new era of hi-tech industrialised farming as the way forward, dismissing more sustainable lower-input agriculture as irrelevant.
But the systematic International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Technology and Development knowledge, co-initiated and led by the current Chief Scientist at Defra when at the World Bank, suggests that more ecological solutions, based on engaging and supporting small farmers could yield the most dramatic change. Reliance on single technology solutions is unlikely to resolve the complex array of problems ahead, which are partly social, partly environmental and partly about control over food systems"
January 4 2010 ~ "how to deliver optimum levels of home production, sustainably"
In last July's Sustainable Development Commission's recommendations to Government Food Security and Sustainability: The perfect fit (pdf), DEFRA was recommended to "undertake specific sector assessments for grain, meat and dairy, fruit, vegetables, fibre and forestry, assessing them for their contribution to home consumption, environment, employment, economy and health, and indicating how to deliver optimum levels of home production, sustainably." We remember Dr James Bellini, a year ago, telling us on Radio 4 to make some very radical lifestyle changes in the next fifteen or twenty years if it's going to have any effect at all - not importing or genetically modifying our livestock and crops, but getting back to traditional seasonal food grown locally. The loss of fossil fuel energy and fertilisers is going to make the UK vulnerable to food shortages for the first time since the Second World War. The government is finally waking up to this - but many would say that some of the solutions suggested in its food strategy paper are suicidally foolish. The Sunday Telegraph also reports on the fact that five months ago Government negotiators opposed mandatory labelling in talks held with European Union member states. "Leaked papers from the European Council reveal how 11 countries, including France and Italy, called for mandatory origin labels on all non-processed food. The amendment, put at a meeting on July 31, was defeated by the UK and nine other countries. " Nick Herbert is quoted ".. Ministers have been caught out promising action to British farmers and consumers while their officials have been voting against the policy in Brussels."
January 2nd 2010 ~ Calling for reappraisal of DEFRA's priorities.
The Yorkshire Post has an article by Richard Ellison, NFU regional director for Yorkshire, on the subject of the CAP and the need for a vigorous reappraisal of DEFRA's priorities.
He wants to see a full review of Defra's executive agencies and an examination of their roles, functions and areas of duplicated work.
A cost-benefit analysis on sheep tagging, he believes, would show that EID is not fit for purpose.
On disease control, he calls for an eradication plan for bTB that effectively tackles all sources of the disease.
We would add that disease control policies need urgently to be re-examined, rather than merely updated every year, in order to ensure they are based on the soundest scientific and veterinary expertise each year and are efficient, humane and environmentally helpful. As Richard Ellison says on vital issue of food security:
"the days of agricultural production being viewed as a rather inconvenient by-product of land and countryside management are behind us."If DEFRA is to regain respect, it must become once again a Ministry of Agriculture, paid for by taxpayers to help those taxpayers who provide the landscape and the nation's food.
January 1 2010 ~ "The beginning of a new decade is a time to look forward as well as back."
Although today's daelnet.co.ukarticle looks back in understandable anger at the decade when New Labour "demonstrated they had no understanding of rural affairs but, much worse, that they also couldn't care less" , the beginning of the new decade, says the article, shows some promise.
While we should never forget the idiocies, especially what the writer calls the "unbelievably chaotic" handling of foot and mouth, the foolishness of policies that mean "Britain produces less of its own food that almost any other developed nation" , the "unmitigated disaster" of Margaret Beckett's time as Minister for DEFRA and the RPA, the cuts to the flood defence budgets "just as the country was about to be hit by the worst floods in living memory" and the grim future for hilly areas like the Yorkshire Dales that
"... could soon be peppered by huge wind turbines which are grossly inefficient and make their living from subsides from the taxpayer rather than the wind."- there is positive and optimistic thinking too; changing attitudes and a greener approach to agriculture may, (hopes the article), get rid of agri-business brutality. Battery poultry farming could make way for "genuinely free range chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys" and, most positive hope of all,
" with luck...food could be produced here in the UK instead of being imported from some country with dodgy animal welfare standards"Read the article
January 1 2010~ "Although we still hear the right things in DEFRA speeches, policy statements and announcements, its actions speak louder than words"
Yorkshire Dales News reports that the Tenant Farmers Association are calling for a new Cabinet Post for Agriculture and Food - a real Minister of Agriculture.
Given the growing threat of world shortages, the very real danger is that it will not be possible to import enough food for the population - with consequences grim to imagine. The TFA national chairman, Greg Bliss, is quoted:
"... Britain has always been a trading nation ... International trade in food must continue to be an important part of our nationís identity but we should not rely upon it for our food security.
Sadly it would appear that DEFRA has largely forgotten the need to preserve a vibrant agricultural industry in Britain. ...Despite the rhetoric...DEFRA has allowed itself to be swayed by single issue environmental groups towards unsustainable policy choices and short term thinking. The DEFRA experiment has failed, it has already lost energy and climate change policy to another Department and it is time agriculture and food went the same way."
January 1 2010 ~Off with its head
The "DEFRA experiment" was to rebrand MAFF during the foot and mouth excesses of 2001. Leadership is now so badly at sea that it is hardly surprising that morale among the rank and file is sinking even further.
A rethink is desperately needed about humanising the Department, about top priorities, about making easier relationships and communicating in clearer language so that real achievement can happen. Yet, ironically, it was Helen Ghosh herself, asserting that she wanted to crack down on "poor performance", who sought to impose from above a complicated means of appraising staff called "Individual Performance Management". No proper pilot was run and the result was that in 2009 7% of Defra staff lodged formal grievances, compared to about 0.04% in the previous year.
Could any organisation have lost its way, its sense of proportion and its sense of humour so entirely and so disastrously?
The documents found here suggest that the likely consequences for any member of DEFRA staff daring to question and challenge is going to be anything but a polite and interested consideration. (The Mad Tea Party in Alice comes inevitably to mind.)
DEFRA does, of course, achieve some good and useful things and it would be cheering to hear more about them - but without the jargon and self satified political nonsense of DEFRASpeak, that weird, cold travesty of the English language.
1 January 2010~ Gareth Vaughan blames EU auditors and officialdom for a "completely inhuman attitude to genuine errors and situations arising as a result of human tragedies."
The Farmers Guardian quotes the Farmers Union of Wales president who was on a farm visit on Powys yesterday when he said that EU officiousness and inflexible interpretation of rules "completely undermines any faith in the EU being a proportionate and fair institution."
"...WAG officials live in a climate of fear, generated by the threat that EU auditors will find fault with a decision, irrespective of any moral justification, resulting in Wales having to pay millions in fines to Europe, known as 'disallowance'. In many of these cases all parties acknowledge that the circumstances are exceptional, and that the penalty is effectively immoral. Yet officials claim that EU regulations make no allowance for extreme conditions, and that penalties must therefore be applied in order to avoid the auditors imposing massive fines."One is reminded of the comment made by one of the farmers DEFRA refused adequately to compensate in spite of the Ombudsman's ruling (see below) "...we have to stick to our side of the rules, when they don't stick to their side of the rules, there seems to be no sanction against them..."