Category Archives: Food security

A sustainable approach: the production and sourcing of local food

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In August a warning was issued by the British Retail Consortium that Dutch tomatoes, Spanish oranges could be held up at ports unless the government quickly smooths out post-Brexit customs processes.

The size of the problem was illustrated last year in a new report from the Royal Society, which shows that the UK is increasingly outsourcing its greenhouse gas emissions.

The editor of the Co-operative News, Anthony Murray, reports that by 2030, the UN wants us to create sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production. At last year’s International Summit of Cooperatives, UN Ambassadors called on the co-op movement to get behind these targets.

He continues: “One of the solutions to creating this sustainable approach is through the sourcing and production of local food. (Typically local food is produced within 20-30 miles of an outlet, but policies vary by retailer). Retail co-ops across the UK support around 1,400 local producers, according to our research into local food initiatives. What has also helped regional co-ops is the relaxing of sourcing rules from the overall Co-op buying group – Federal Retail and Trading Services”.

In another article he reports that Love British Food 2017 was sponsored by Co-op Food, a reflecting co-ops’ commitments to local communities – whether that community is members, suppliers or customers.

In May, the Co-op Group became the first retailer to switch all of its own-brand fresh meat to British suppliers; the retailer only sells British beef, chicken, ham, pork, sausages, duck and turkey and only uses British meat in its own-label chilled ready meals, pies and sandwiches. The only exception is cured meats and continental varieties in ready meals and sandwiches, such as chorizo.

 

 

 

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Access to food cannot be left to the market forces, it is the responsibility of society and the state: nine measures based on Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman

An important message from friend and colleague, Devinder Sharma, who chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security and is also a member of the coordination committee of the National Kisan Panchayat (National Coalition of Farmers Unions) in India:

It has been exactly 13 years since I was invited by the UK Food Group and Sustain to make a presentation on My Vision for a Global Agriculture at a ‘Dialogue on Agricultural Trade Reform, Subsidies and the Future of Small and Family Farms and Farmers’, held in London, on June 30, 2004.

[Ed: in the same year came the great paper: Stopping the Great Food Swap: Written by Dr Caroline Lucas MEP, based on background research and support provided by Andy Jones and Vicki Hird of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, and by Colin Hines, author of Localisation: A Global Manifesto, Earthscan 2000]

But looking at the recommendations I made you will agree that crisis wouldn’t have been of the order that we see today had the world taken a step towards ushering in sustainability. This would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, limited the damage by climate change and reduced yawning inequality. This is what I wrote in 2004; it certainly needs to be updated. But the essence remains the same, even now:

“My Vision for a Global Agriculture comes at a crucial time in the history of international agriculture. I wish the powers that be, and that includes the agriculture ministers of the G-8 countries, and international agencies like FAO/IFAD/World Bank and the likes had paid some attention to it, and the world wouldn’t have been faced with the kind of crisis that we are confronted with now. It is my strong belief that sooner or later the world will have to return to a sustainable pathway in agriculture, the sooner it happens the better it will be for humanity.

Well, this didn’t happen. And the crisis on the farm meanwhile has already worsened, the environment already devastated. Climate change has the world sitting on a tipping point, and inequality has multiplied so much so that the world is grappling with these problems with no silver lining on the horizon.

I am trying to spell out a series of parameters that should underline all international approaches to agriculture. These are based on Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman that suggests: ‘Think of the poorest person you have ever known, and ask if your next step will be of any use to him. In short, the effort should be to wipe every tear from every eye.’

Sustainable Livelihoods: focusing on tackling the causes of poverty, hunger, the inequitable distribution of income and low human resource base with the objective of providing everyone with the opportunity to earn a sustainable livelihood. The green revolution areas are encountering serious bottlenecks to growth and productivity. Excessive mining of soil nutrients and groundwater have already brought in soil sickness.

Food Sovereignty: Every country should have the right to food sovereignty. It should result from the interplay of three determining factors: food production, food availability and access to food. A sustainable livelihood approach is the strength of food sovereignty. It should be people centric, based on community strengths, eco-friendly and gender sensitive. Food production, a central pivot of food sovereignty, must be based on minimal use of external inputs and that includes chemicals, transgenics and water. Access to food cannot be left to the market forces, it has to be the obligation of the society and the state.

Local Solutions: For the past three decades the focus has been on finding global solutions to local problems in agriculture. The World Bank/IMF, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and now some of the major donors like DFID and GTZ have been embarking on introducing alien approaches to agricultural improvement and have exacerbated the crisis on the farm front. This process must be immediately stopped, if not reversed. Given the diversity of the agro-ecological regions, sustainable agriculture needs location-specific solutions. 

Emphasis on food as a commodity: this has encouraged monocultures, loss of biodiversity, encouraged trade in some food commodities, distorted domestic markets, and disrupted the micro-nutrient availability in soil, plant, animals and humans. The emphasis on food as a commodity to be traded internationally has encouraged food miles, adding to greenhouse emissions, water mining, and destruction of farm incomes. The need is to revert back to the time-tested farming systems that relied on mixed cropping and its integration with farm animals, meeting the household and community nutrition needs from the available farm holdings.

Move away from Cash Crops: For the past two decades at least, the World Bank/IMF, some in academia and their donors have been pressing developing countries to diversify from staple foods to cash crops in what is being projected as the right approach to add to farm incomes. This is politically motivated advice and runs counter to the sustainable approach spelled out above. Many Latin American countries are faced with a serious land degradation crisis and increasing hunger as a result. It also pushes farmers into a death trap since the developing countries do not have the resources to provide for adequate marketing infrastructure. Move away from cash crops: focus on staples, only trade surpluses.

Reverse Farm Exodus: The disappearing family farms in the developed countries and the process of further marginalisation of the farming communities in the developing world are the symptoms of the same malaise. Farmers are being pushed out of agriculture through a farming system that is becoming increasingly unremunerative and industrialised. To maintain ecological balance, and to ensure sustainable livelihoods, the focus of any policy imperative should be to restore the pride in family farms. This will need adequate state protection and support and at the same time should be based on the principle of mutual compatibility with the small farmers in the majority world.

Reorient Farm Research: International agricultural research, as well as the national agricultural research systems, should re-orient the focus of farm research based on these principles: farmer friendly, environment friendly and long-term sustainability. Instead of the ‘Lab-to-Land’ approach, which has done immense damage to agriculture globally, the emphasis should be on learning from the land, going back to farmers and the traditional farming systems. Technology need not always be high-tech and sophisticated, it can be simple and effective, fitting the new improved technology to farmers’ need rather than asking farmers to fit into the technology package developed. This can only happen if farm research is brought back to the public sector. All technology should be freely available, and should not come with any proprietary tags.

Change Food habits: Obesity has already emerged as the biggest killer in America, with tobacco-related deaths now in the second position. This is the outcome of the private industry efforts to change the food and dietary habits to suit their commercial interests. Industry is desperate to ensure its acceptability irrespective of the human costs involved. Changing the food habits of the urban consumers that dictate market demand, is certainly a difficult task. Ban advertisements for junk foods and genetically modified foods.

Encourage Local Markets: Creating a global market for farm produce is the bane of modern agriculture. The seed multinationals, the food giants, and the supermarkets, have cornered the food chain in the process destroying livelihoods, local markets and drastically reducing food choices. Such a market strategy has resulted in the disappearance of locally produced nutritious foods and micro-nutrient deficiency in human populations has grown manifold. Encouraging local markets will also reduce the dependence upon long distance transportation thereby minimising global warming. It will also help in bringing back the traditional and neglected crops, and help in changing the food habits.

This political process and mainline thinking has to be reversed for the sake of the global economy as well its sustained future. We need a world where every country is proud of its farmers, and where every farmer is proud to be the food provider – the annadata.

A happy farming family is the base for any and every strong economy. It is also the foundation for an all-round economic growth and development and the pre-requisite for sustainable development at the local, national and international level. Unfortunately, the small-scale farmer (called Kisan in India) has become a burden on the global society. Every government is keen to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Globalisation, economic liberalisation and the free trade paradigm are all aimed at pushing farmers out of agriculture.

Devinder Sharma is an Indian agricultural scientist, thinker, researcher and writer respected for his views on food, sustainable agriculture and trade policy. Through his writings and analysis, he focuses on the inextricable link between trade and sustainable agriculture, new technologies, intellectual property rights and biopiracy, poverty and hunger. He chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security and is also part of the coordination committee of the National Kisan Panchayat (National Coalition of Farmers Unions) in India.

 

 

 

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Japan’s agricultural law offers British politicians a fine model in social, environmental and health terms

Lancashire organic farmer Tom Rigby (right, campaigning for all those affected by organophosphates used in agricultureposted a link to a most interesting July article by Jonathan Baker, currently working for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). JB is ‘driven’ to better understand what he sees as a strategic challenge for the land use sector: how to provide food in a sustainable way (full text below). He opens:

“If Michael Gove gave you a piece of paper and asked you to draft the UK’s forthcoming Agriculture Bill I imagine you, like me, wouldn’t know where to start. This is partly to be expected, we’ve not had to do any such thing for almost 40 years. For this reason, and although the contexts are in many ways different, it is worth looking at how the Japanese approach this problem”.There have been two Basic Laws relating to agriculture in the post war era. The first Agricultural Basic Law came into force in 1961 and was focused on increasing production and maintaining the post WWII land reforms. It also looked at increasing the incomes of rural populations who were starting to be left behind by the rapidly developing urban centres. The current Basic Law – well worth reading – is less than ten pages long. This is the pdf I found, which lists many amendments – the 1999 version?

In social, environmental and health terms it offers a fine model for British politicians to follow today.Scrolling forward, in the early 1990s it was recognised that the situation had changed, driven by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) facilitated Uruguay Round and reforms of the EU’s CAP and US agricultural systems. Jonathan recounts that an Investigative Committee on Fundamental Issues in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Industry was set up and reported in 1998, outlining four major ‘changing conditions’ to be addressed:

  • Falling self-sufficiency rates – driven in part by richer consumption habits.
  • Reduced agricultural land and aging farmers.
  • Loss of vitality in rural areas.
  • Changing public awareness with consumers having greater interest in stable and safe food and concerns about environmental and cultural sustainability.

In 1999 debates started in the national Diet and a number of key features of the ‘Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas’ emerged and ultimately were put into the final law:

  • The law would be divided into food policy, agricultural policy and rural area policy.
  • The law would create four basic principles
  • A ‘Basic Plan’ would be created and this would be revised every four years. The Plan would have to be consistent with the law and specifically the four basic principles.
  • The law stipulated the responsibilities of the different levels of Government, farmers, consumers and businesses involved in the food chain.

The four principles are:

  • Securing a stable food supply – Article 2 notes the ‘unstable factors’ in world food trade and talks about the importance of stockpiles of food and maintaining Japanese agricultural production. The law requires the creation of a food security ratio that must be published annually and should be improved over time. The current Basic Plan includes a self-sufficiency potential ratio.
  • Fulfilment of multifunctional roles – Article 3 refers to ‘the multiple roles that agriculture plays through food production in rural areas, from the conservation of national land, water resources and the natural environment to the formation of a good landscape and maintenance of cultural tradition’. These multifunctional rules ‘shall be fulflilled sufficiently for the future’.
  • Article 4 is not about environmental or cultural sustainability, but about ensuring that agriculture remains viable, that there is sufficient workforce and infrastructure.
  • Development of rural areas – Article 5 talks about the importance of rural areas and their ‘conventional role as primary food supplier and the multifunctional roles’.

The rest of the law sets out a series of policy areas (women in agriculture, food safety) and high level policy objectives.

We add news of urban developments – roof-top agriculture on Tokyo’s highrise apartments here:

Jonathan ended “The 1999 Basic Law marked quite a big change, creating a five year planning cycle, broadening out the objective of agricultural policy and focussing more on what the consumer wanted. The law also codified the idea that sectoral (food and agriculture) and regional (rural) policies should be distinct and although its questionable the extent to which this has happened it set a framework that is now starting to be used. This was the start of the liberalisation of agriculture that is now entering its late phase”.

About Jonathan Baker: I currently work for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) as a Senior Land Use Policy Adviser. My job involves working with officials, stakeholders and members on improving and informing land use policy with a focus on conservation. I also provide advice to CLA members as needed. I come from a research background and have worked in consultancy and Government on environmental and land use policy. I studied environmental science at Bath Spa and Environmental Technology at Imperial College London. I’m driven to better understand what I see as the land use sector’s two strategic challenges; how to provide food in a sustainable way and how to create business models for non-food production. I am also a Fellow of the Centre for Evaluating Complexity across the Nexus (CECAN) and bring a analytical point of view to my current role and to the Scholarship. My project will look outside the EU to see how other developed countries delivering environmental enhancements from private land. I hope to expand our sector’s horizons and bring back lessons, ideas and experiences to inform the ongoing debates about post-Brexit land use policy. I am grateful to the John Oldacre Foundation and Nuffield for providing me with the opportunity to study this important and timely issue.

 

 

 

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No fair trade here: cream and butter prices rise but farm-gate prices for milk don’t

The Financial Times reports that a reduction in the milk supply, due to a cold spring and dairy farmers leaving, has led to prices of butter and cream rising 18.7% in the year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. But despite “record prices” for wholesale cream and butter in recent weeks, the National Farmers Union point out farm-gate prices for milk have continued to fail to keep in step.

BBC online reports that Arla’s CEO Peter Tuborgh said producers “put the brakes on” in 2016, in the wake of previous overproduction of milk and consequently lower prices and Michael Oakes, chairman of the National Farmers Union dairy board, added that UK supply had fallen partly because so many farmers “decided enough was enough during that downturn”. Many farmers have often had to sell milk for less than the cost of producing it and so – understandably – the number of UK dairy producers has fallen.

The National Farmers’ Union said the “constant boom-and-bust dairy market cycle” helped “no-one, most of all farmers” and expressed concern about the lack of strong upward movement in the farm-gate milk price.

Milk buyers are worried about milk volumes falling but, the NFU spokesperson added, “Confidence within dairy farming is at an all-time low [due to] mistrust in the market dynamics and suspicion about how milk buyers are treating their supply base, coupled with the lack of direction on the impact of Brexit on the dairy sector.”

Post-Brexit, will the UK government ensure that ‘ordinary’ farmers receive a fairer proportion of the agricultural payments and turn away from the practice of subsidising offshore companies and rich individuals?

And will the Groceries Code Adjudicator, who places great emphasis on scrutinising supermarkets give more time to food producers and address the issue of unjust farmgate prices?

 

 

 

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The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers: 2003 and 2017

In August 2003 the Farmers Guardian reported that a series of industry-wide meetings, called by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), were held for a year to discuss the true costs of milk production.

Members of RABDF, with independent research consultancies and dairy farmers, produced a report showing that the cost of milk production is much higher than current estimates state. The true cost of milk production was found to be between 20 and 23p a litre, rather than the 18p currently being paid. Dairy farmers were working an average 70-hour week with only a few days holiday each year and low milk prices have left them earning just £2.90 an hour.

The chairman, Tim Brigstocke, said that problem areas were fixed costs, farm overheads, farmer remuneration, family labour costs, pensions and staff development had not been included in current assessments.

The new guidelines proposed by the RABDF included gross costs such as feed, forage, bedding, and vet’s bills; operational costs like labour (£10 an hour deemed a reasonable figure to factor into the equation, given the level of skills required in dairying), machinery, depreciation, property-related, unpaid family labour and resource costs: rent, quota leasing and finance costs. Mr Brigstocke urged producers to adopt these guidelines to arrive at a realistic picture of how much their businesses were costing them.

A Lancashire dairy farmer contacted this site to voice concern about the very differently focussed RABDF of 2017 and its ‘elitist style’.

RABDF, now described as the ‘the new secretariat to the Trehane Trust’, is advertising its October conference in Birdcage Walk London for ‘leading farmers’ who are to be granted the opportunity to ‘rub shoulders’ with policy makers and supply chain leaders. The conference will be held in conjunction with the Trehane Trust which funds research into all aspects of the dairy supply chain, from production to new product development and consumer trends in the dairy sector – but the crucial subject of farmgate prices is not listed.

One of the invited speakers at this most opulent venue (above) is from Arla – a downward trend-setter, announcing a price reduction for the April payment – the first milk price drop in 2017 by a major UK milk buyer. A further online search will reveal that this company has closed several processing plants making hundreds of workers unemployed, though the net profit of the Arla Group last year was €356 million.

The key findings of Trehane Fellowship recipient Mike Houghton of Andersons will be included. He has been researching future options and opportunities for the sector at home and abroad, using his contacts in Canada and the USA to find out more about their support systems, in particular crop insurance schemes and futures markets and consulting key people within the legal profession and the insurance industry to obtain a different perspective on the topic. 

Tim Brigstocke is now RABDF’s policy director

When this ‘Business and Policy Conference’ has taken place, will he help the RABDF to come down to earth in the interests of the average dairy farmer – arguably an endangered species?

In the interests of food security, will the RABDF present the facts about rising costs but low and fluctuating farmgate prices to the complicit policy makers and supply chain leaders, with whom wealthy farmers are being invited to rub shoulders?

Or will they continue their failed policies as the dairy sector continues to decline and foreign importers take over?

 

 

 

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Food security 10: British dairy production at risk

 

Pre-empting qualms about the health impacts of dairy products, from Lancashire dairy farmer Tom Rigby’s retweet we note the findings of professor of food chain nutrition Ian Givens and his colleagues from Reading University, Copenhagen University and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. They analysed 29 studies involving 938,465 participants from around the world undertaken over the last 35 years, including five done in the UK. “No associations were found for total (high-fat/low-fat) dairy and milk with the health outcomes of mortality, CHD or CVD,” they said. In fact, they added, fermented dairy products may potentially slightly lower the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

A new hazard is being added to the long-term imposition of payments below the cost of production

As dairy farms close, due to unviable prices, the distances between farms is growing and providing a tanker to collect their milk is too expensive. The East Anglian Times reports that Muller has announced that it will close its Chadwell Heath depot in London and no longer collect the milk from 18 dairy farms across Norfolk, Suffolk. Essex and Kent. This follows the closure of two Scottish plants by Muller last year.

The 18 dairy farms who are to have their milk supply contracts cancelled by Muller have been given 12 months from the end of March to find new buyers for their milk at a price that offers them a viable future – one commentator adds gloomily:

“Given current trends it won’t be long before it will be possible to drive from Dover to York without seeing a single dairy cow”.

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A brief history for visiting readers from other countries (left, Jan-May)

The number of dairy farms across the UK has fallen dramatically since the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was abolished in I993 by a Conservative government that saw it as “anti-competitive”.  In the period 2013-2016 alone, Business Matters reports that 1022 farms have closed. The MMB was created by an act of Parliament in the 1930s to ensure that all UK dairy farmers were paid the same price for their milk and that they shared milk collection charges regardless of where they farmed. This was to stop dairy farmers being bullied by over-powerful dairy companies who were establishing virtual regional monopolies.

Since the MMB was broken up, farmers have had to negotiate terms with processors individually and this ‘free trade’ has benefitted the milk processing companies and now the average price UK dairy farmers received for their milk last year was lower than it was when the MMB was abolished 24 years ago – and that is the main reason that the number of dairy herds in the UK has collapsed.

 

 

“‘Soft’ food imperialism — using others’ land and labour rather than one’s own.”

Last year Ben Webster, Environment Editor of the Times, wrote about Britain becoming reliant on imported fruit and vegetables. The original link no longer works and the environment section no longer exists but the source is recorded here.

Britain’s dependence on imports is leaving it vulnerable to foreign production that could be devastated by droughts and heatwaves resulting from climate change.

Webster lists a number of concerns voiced in a study co-authored by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University:

  • thousands of orchards and farms dedicated to horticulture have been lost;
  • only a third of apples and one in six pears and plums eaten in Britain are grown here;
  • since 1990, production of cauliflowers has fallen two thirds,
  • almost halved for lettuce,
  • and dropped by a quarter for tomatoes and mushrooms.

Lang is urging the government to reverse the decline in horticulture to guarantee supplies of fruit and vegetables needed for a balanced diet.

  • The total land area dedicated to fruit and vegetable production fell by 27% between 1985 and 2014.
  • Only 5,300 hectares grow dessert apple trees, down from 12,800 in 1986.
  • Plum trees have declined even faster, with only 750 hectares, compared with 2,400 in 1986.

Professor Lang said supermarkets were partly responsible because they had squeezed British growers and switched to foreign companies

European fresh food products now underpin UK access to fresh food; huge amounts of fruit and vegetables are imported. Some of them could be grown here. Why does the UK import apples or pears, for example, which could be grown sustainably here?

Neo-liberals prefer the metrics of economic efficiency, free trade and markets. From a public health or environmental perspective, however, such metrics can be part of the problem – leading to damaging intensification.

Professor Lang said: “We have been genuinely shocked by the mismatch of UK supply and demand in horticulture. Our report points out weak links in the chain: low wages, reliance on migrant labour, a suspicion of low returns to growers, a waste of land and resources. The vast importation of produce which could be grown here suggests that UK policy is tacitly a kind of ‘soft’ food imperialism — using others’ land and labour rather than one’s own.”

A Brexit or Bremain paper by Professor Lang and his colleagues may be downloaded here: http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Food-and-Brexit-briefing-paper.pdf