Critique from farm on ‘The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food’, launched by Mrs Beckett and DEFRA, 12/12/02

Whilst the Government’s new Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food, launched on Wednesday, 12 December, contains some positive proposals, these are outweighed by its failure to address the root cause of the farming crisis – the disparity of power between farms and the agrifood companies they buy from and sell to.

DEFRA’s Strategy is subtitled ‘Facing the Future’ which can be read as a Government warning to farmers that the future it faces is a tough one. Although the farming community hardly needs telling this, given DEFRA’s own statistics showing that 15,000 farmers left the industry in England in the year up to June 2002.

The Strategy makes the point several times that the majority of the ‘responsibility for the welfare of farming and food’ does not rest on the ‘shoulders of the Government’, but increasingly on the industry itself.

After 50 years of major government involvement - some would say excessive interference - in agriculture, this Government appears to be preparing its parachute to bail out of farm policy. At least as far as any policy to regulate agricultural markets or the major players in those markets.

Although the DEFRA paper notes the, ‘…major disparity between many very small producer businesses at one end and very large supermarkets at the other has led to tensions within the chain with concerns that the smaller players – manufacturers as well as producers – are unable to secure a fair return.’ It doesn’t go so far as to acknowledge that retailers are effectively operating an oligopoly – with 5 supermarkets accounting for 70% of all grocery sales and one, Tesco controlling over 20%. Given such market power, it is not surprising that farmers receive 7.5p of every #1 spent by the consumer on food today, compared to 50p or 10 shillings in the #1 fifty years ago (ref. Prof. Jules Pretty, Agri-Culture, 2002).

Instead of addressing such market imbalances, the Government will be concentrating on providing farmers with marketing and branding advice, promoting ‘farm diversification’ and supporting the delivery of public goods and services - as in environmental management.

As regards the latter, there is much merit in DEFRA’s take-up of the Curry Commission’s ‘Broad & Shallow’ proposal in the form of a new ‘entry-level agri-environment scheme’ open to all farmers. This offers a very positive signal to farmers and a positive message to the public about farming’s actual and potential role in managing our countryside.

Despite this welcome initiative, the main driver behind the Government’s proposals appears to be its determination to meet the demands of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in time for its upcoming Ministerial meeting in September 2003.

The Government supports the WTO aims to further liberalise trade in agricultural goods, which it believes will bring benefits to both producers and consumers, ‘…liberalisation of agricultural trade and the removal of trade distorting support and protection are key steps in allowing producers and food processors to reconnect with the market.’

This imperative will undermine the good in the Strategy as it prevents the Government from addressing the real causes of the crisis facing food producers in the UK and around the world: Global markets in agricultural goods are not ‘free’, fair or truly competitive.

Subsidies have helped mask that fact for 50 years. The WTO trade negotiations demand a shift away from production subsidies. The Government whilst pursuing that ‘free trade’ agenda, also wants to avoid being seen to abandon UK farming wholesale to the ‘free market’. It therefore hopes that its proposed package of environmental payments plus diversification plus better marketing will sufficiently slow down the exodus of farmers and farm-workers off the land, so that the public doesn’t notice that our national food sovereignty and security is being gambled on the false altar of free trade and the false hope that global commodity markets are a stable and sustainable source for our food.

In this report and in recent utterances from DEFRA Ministers and others, the Government is briefing heavily against the notion that national food security should be based on a national food producing industry, ‘…the Government will continue to assert within the European Union that the best way of ensuring food security is through improved trading relationships, rather than a drive for self-sufficiency.’

The Government argues that this will not only be better for consumers in the North who will benefit from lower food prices, but also poor people in Southern Countries. Yet leading development agencies challenge this latter point,
‘The emphasis on increased trade in agriculture has inevitably resulted in least developed and developing countries addressing their agricultural production to international markets and therefore concentrating on export cash crops such as cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco. …If these export crops are affected by disease or become less desirable to the international market, then local communities have no subsistence agriculture to fall back on and no purchasing power to buy imported staples.’
Globalisation and Food Security: mapping the NGO perspective, Action Aid 2001


The Strategy is riven with contradictions:

More Exports & More Imports = Food Swap
The Government wants UK producers to become more ‘internationally competitive’ and export-oriented, yet also wants the UK to be more open to and so reliant on food imports.

In effect, it is promoting little more than a giant ‘food swap’, which will benefit the food commodity traders, processors and retailers, rather than farmers or consumers whether in this country or overseas.

More Local Food & More Food Miles
The Government states that it wants to support local and regional food producers to ‘increase returns from the market’, but also because ‘there are clear benefits to the environment if transport and packaging are reduced’. Yet the overriding emphasis is not on local, regional or national food provision, but on increasing trade in both exports and imports of food.

Less Subsidies to Farmers & More Subsidies to Agrifood business Farmers are told they must be less dependent on subsidies – yet food manufacturers and retailers benefit from vast hidden public subsidies via transport systems, such as the trans-European road network; untaxed aviation fuel etc. These allow those companies to bring competing produce into the UK without paying the full costs of transport, so beating down farm-gate prices to the minimum.

In conclusion
The U-boats may no longer be patrolling our coastal waters, but a truly long-term, sustainable strategy based on a combination of common-sense, science and economics would suggest that increasing our reliance on overseas producers and global commodity markets is unwise: