Category Archives: Government

Brexit could boost British farming

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As Kim Wilkie (below) says, government can never quite come up with the right legislation to protect against war, weather and pestilence, but then neither can an unregulated market. Agriculture cannot be treated as a purely commercial industry because too many other natural factors are at stake and the timescales are millennial.


He says that priority must be given to reviving the soils we have exhausted over the past 50 years. Treating arable land as an inert substrate for chemicals to boost crop production has proved to be a very short-term solution.

Drenching farmland in artificial nitrates not only kills the organic life of the soil, it is an inefficient way of getting nutrients into plants. As more and more nitrates are then needed to make the impoverished soil grow crops, the indigestible quantities are washed out into watercourses and pollute rivers and aquifers.

The fragile soil, deep ploughed and no longer bound together by organic matter (the life in the soil), also washes away into the sea. The Environment Agency estimates that across the UK, 2m tonnes of topsoil are eroded every year.

Combined with sensible farming, such as nitrogen-fixing crops and minimum tilling of the land, a return to mixed farming (rotating arable cultivation with cattle and sheep pasture grazing) does seem to offer a way of growing enough protein to feed the planet while at the same time restoring a healthy and stable environment.

Wilkie continues by pointing out that in the British Isles grass grows particularly well and livestock, grazing on pasture outside rather than on corn in sheds, is an efficient method of converting photosynthesising plants into protein. Co-operating with the land in this way continues a natural environment that has evolved with man since the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago.

The old argument is that we can only feed the world if we pursue intensive chemical agro-industry. New understanding of soil science suggests that we can actually only continue to produce enough food if we change our farming practices and reverse the depletion of our soil.

All farming needs to work harmoniously with natural systems. Attitudes to agriculture are buffeted by fears of starvation on the one hand and the desire for cheap food on the other. War, weather and pestilence haunt productivity.

Brexit has precipitated a complete review of subsidies. Housing demand is putting major pressure on the rural South East and particularly the greenbelt. Free Trade in chlorinated chicken looms ominously over agricultural integrity and food health. Where will it all end?

The first indications are it might go in some surprisingly good directions. The emphasis may shift from volume annual yields to long-term productivity. Farm support may be targeted towards methods that work with the health of soil and water. Chemical nitrates and pollutants may be taxed. Market gardens may reappear around our bulging urban edges.

*Kim Wilkie studied modern history at Oxford and landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, before setting up his landscape studio in London in 1989, combining design with running a small farm with rearing longhorn cattle. 

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/bde16d6a-2772-11e8-9274-2b13fccdc744

 

 

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Advice from Ireland: “We must change our ways to make emissions fall and farmers’ incomes rise”

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“The present system is not serving family farmers well. Young people are leaving the land in droves. For the second time in five years Ireland has had to import fodder to feed its animals. Farmers’ incomes are on the floor while everyone else profits from their work. We are overstocking our land and pushing an intensive model that is damaging our soil”.

So writes Eamon Ryan in the Times (left), an Irish Green Party politician who has served as Leader of the Green Party since May 2011 and as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources from 2007 to 2011. He believes in a green future for Irish farming and rural life and in family farmers as the ‘frontline heroes’ in meeting the great environmental challenges we face.

We must change our ways to make emissions fall and farmers’ incomes rise

Forthcoming changes to the Common Agricultural Policy will allow us to make these reforms and pay farmers properly for doing the right thing. We should start by ensuring that we put a price on the carbon that stays stored in fields, bogs and trees. It is a chance to direct money to the least advantaged parts of our country.

We have an obligation to slow runaway climate change and can face these challenges knowing that the evolutionary leap we need to take will also be the best way to provide for the people of rural Ireland.

Farmers will become experts in planting and maintaining a new national forest, where native trees are grown in a way that allows for natural seeding, extraction and regeneration. It will be full of biodiversity and a great addition to the Wild Atlantic Way. The forest can be a park for locals and visitors alike, far better than the dark and impenetrable coniferous plantations that are clear-felled every 35 years.

Those farmers will also be paid for restoring the quality of our water. By monitoring everything that is done on the land, we can find solutions to the floods and droughts coming our way with climate change.

The prime minister rejected a citizens’ assembly recommendation last week that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture should be taxed, and the revenue generated be used for climate-friendly farming policies. The governing party. Fine Gael, is all about supporting big business, so it is happy to protect the status quo.

At some point, though, farmers are going to realise that they are not being well represented. The best plan is to go green.

Ryan’s recommendations are relevant even to those who leave the European Union.

 

 

 

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France has announced that at least half of all food bought by the public sector must be organic or locally produced

In February, as sales of organic food continue to rise in France and are reachingrecord levels’ in England, the French Agricultural Minister Stéphane Travert announced the new rules as part of measures to boost the French farming sector, and to improve diets.

Travert (left) said that as France is showing, public procurement can be a “powerful tool” for supporting local and organic farmers and can make an “important contribution” towards improved public health. Public procurement approaches will also support SME producers to gain access to markets, in line with the commitments made in the Industrial Strategy.

The Soil Association’s Policy and Campaigns Manager Rob Percival (right) said the initiative highlights the “power of public procurement” to support better farming practices and improve diets.

He continued: “More ambitious action from Government could further stimulate demand for British, local, and higher quality produce. Michael Gove already has the tools he needs at his fingertips. He must move now to implement DEFRA’s Balanced Scorecard approach across the whole public sector including education and health, while requiring public procurement decisions to place a weighting of at least 60% on quality relative to cost.”

“Gove must seize the opportunity presented by Brexit to implement a procurement policy at least as ambitious as his French counterpart,” Mr Percival added.

 

 

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Dairy industry collapsing: stabilised by MacDonald government, 61 years later – thrown to the wolves by Margaret Thatcher

In recent years, dairy prices have been on a rollercoaster: at one point in 2015, farmers were receiving less money for their milk than it cost to produce.

Arla has reduced the price it pays farmers for milk. The drop of 1.73 pence follows a small price reduction last month, giving Arla’s British producers 29.27 pence per litre.

Andrew Cozens (below) has a herd of 230 dairy cattle near Stroud, and sells his milk to Arla.

Lucy Taylor interviewed him for Farming Today (Link to audio, Mr Cozens at 8mins 20 secs.

He remembered the 2015 drop to 16p per litre when all the profits saved from earlier years were used up just to keep going. The price drop in January was expected but a further cut in February had been a ‘bolt from the blue’; he added that if the forecasts of further drastic falls in May were correct he would have to sell up and do something else.

NFU Scotland Vice President Gary Mitchell said that dairy farmers in UK have little confidence that the supply chain is fairly sharing returns from high value dairy products with those milking the cows and must deliver fairer returns to milk producers.

UK Milk Prices – The Twenty Years War: an archived 2015 article by Bruce Jobson, published in a dairy breeders’ magazine. Edited extracts:

Farmers were at the mercy of the individual dairies and prices were extremely volatile. In order to establish a fair and coherent system, the British Government established the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) system for England and Wales as well as, separate Boards for Scotland and Northern Ireland Milk Marketing Board. Set up in 1933 the MMBs pooled all the milk and guaranteed a minimum price to farmers, providing them with a regular service, and a regular cheque.

“The system proved successful and capable of withstanding the instability of the markets. The collective strength (remember: divide and conquer) provided a negotiation position and a pricing system that secured the liquid market price”.

Deregulation and privatisation were part of the Thatcher Government ideology. Though milk producers voted 99.9% to maintain the MMB system, Thatcher abolished the MMB in October 1994 in England, Wales and Scotland and in Northern Ireland in February 1995. In a democratic world the wishes of 99.9% of UK farmers not to abolish the MMB system would, and should have, prevailed. As a result, thousands of dairy farmers were subsequently ruined and this in turn created the rise of division; and supermarket power.

According to the Farmers Guardian, the farm gate price fell by 28% in real terms between 1994 and 2010. “With no MMB as the counterbalance, in 2000 our farm’s milk began a price drop of 40% in 18 months,” recalled Anthony Bradley, a former farmer from the Yorkshire Dales. £50,000 per annum “effectively walked off” the family farm. “That was the end for us as dairy farmers.” In December 2014, an estimated 16 dairy farmers per week were leaving the industry. For some, enough was enough.

In 1995, there were 35,000+ dairy farms in the UK, now there are 13,000+ (Dairy industry in the UK: Statistics, 2016).

Will the next British government institute a similar co-operative, retaining the advantages of the MMB and restoring the country’s collapsing dairy industry?

 

 

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Farming news from analysts and practitioners

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Professor Nic Lampkin, Executive Director of the Organic Research Centre,  responded to George Monbiot’s article, Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown:

“He is right on many levels, but what he does not state is that we already have an armoury of solutions to resolve many of the problems that are creating this potential ‘insectageddon’:

“At the Organic Research Centre, we undertake cutting-edge science on agroecological approaches, including the provision of habitats on farms to support insects including pollinators and pest predators, to resolve the environmental conflicts caused by unsustainable farming practices. Farming and wildlife don’t need to be separated – they can be integrated to mutual benefit, as they have been for hundreds of years in European agriculture giving rise to the insect and bird populations which are now in decline.

“Our work with farmers shows that many are already engaged in taking up the challenge for the benefit of providing quality food and protecting the environment.

“But this all comes at a cost. Funding for quality research on sustainable farming, focusing in particular on ecological rather than technological innovation and the means to deliver the results on the ground, is in short supply, especially when short-termism by policy makers is the name of the game. Depressingly, the environment is the ultimate loser and farmers get the blame.

“To implement these solutions, we desperately need the will of policy makers and consumers to trigger change”. http://slideplayer.com/slide/5857449/

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The road to food sovereignty

Pat Mooney, Canadian author or co-author of several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity and Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian architect and environmentalist activist, outline the concerns of three United Nations organisations in the New Internationalist:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE4ubI5XkA4

Their solution for both climate and food sovereignty: “Dismantle the global industrial agri-food system. Governments must give more space to the already growing and resilient interlinked network of small-scale farmers, livestock-keepers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, fishers and urban producers who, our research shows, already feed most of the world”. The term ‘peasant web’ is used by the authors to include all these food producers.

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) has published a report: ‘Who Will Feed Us?’ (download link). Some remarkable statistics are given in the report and listed here.

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In Agricology, another organisation, farmers and researchers are sharing knowledge to work towards more resource efficient, resilient and profitable agricultural systems

Over 20 UK organisations are working (see here) on practical, sustainable farming, regardless of labels. Agricology is led by the Game and Wildlife Trust, The Daylesford Foundation and the Organic Research Centre.

A 2014 seminar covered the important role of earthworms in helping to improve soil structure; the improved drainage and cultivation implications of improved soil structure; the beneficial effects on soil structure and soil organic matter (SOM) levels of introducing cover crops into rotations; improving the farm drainage system and knock-on benefits in relation to drilling and improved black-grass control; the importance of waiting for soil to dry out before working it, avoiding compaction; and the impacts of increasing SOM on soil erosion, run-off and soil structure.

The first seminar in 2018 will cover:

  • Herbal leys and pasture fed livestock in arable systems.
  • Experimenting with ley species mixtures for dairy, forage, and soil health.
  • Integrating livestock to graze herbal leys, cover crops, and manage arable weeds.
  • Diverse leys and building soil organic matter.
  • Monitoring the impact of leys on soil health.

Their conclusion: “In response to increasing challenges including declining soil fertility, problem weeds such as blackgrass and increasing cost of inputs, there is a need to rethink the way we farm. Agricology supports farmers and growers to transition to more resilient, sustainable farming systems, bringing together research and farmer experience on agroecological practices (such as reduced tillage, cover crops and reintegrating livestock) to replace inputs with knowledge”.

 

 

 

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‘Bright Blue’ Conservative proposal: damaging to British food producers but profitable to the hospitality industry, commodity speculators and Exim traders

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The proposal by a Conservative think tank opens with a people-pleasing injunction: end the payment of vast subsidies to wealthy landowners after Brexit.

However, those who read and remember more than the headline will begin to see that profits are simply to be redirected.

“The EU system of paying farmers according to how much land they own should be replaced by payments for environmental benefits plus a ‘means-tested livelihood support’ for the poorest”, the report by Bright Blue says. It accepts that the system could reduce food production and make Britain more reliant on imports, which account for 40% of consumption. However, it says that the loss of self-sufficiency is a price worth paying for protecting wildlife and natural beauty.

After a lyrical paragraph about the environment, Bright Blue sheds sentiment and proposes three income sources for food producers (in order of preference?):

  1. A market-based commissioning scheme;
  2. means-tested livelihood support – aka government dole
  3. and/or income from agricultural produce or other monetisable services sold at market prices without any production subsidies.

Yet another nightmare administrative system?

Chapter Three of the report explains, “We envisage ‘suppliers’ bidding together or individually to supply ecosystem services to paying ‘beneficiaries’ in specific catchments on online market-places. Suppliers would include farmers, land owners, and land managers”. 

Voices of sanityTimes readers’ comment:

David Illsley 

How to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons! Lower subsidies for empty fields, yes! but don’t pay farmers to stop producing food only to pay them for planting flowers! This country needs to be self-sufficient in basic foods, milk, grain, meat, food, water, and as much as possible energy. 

Tony Perryman 

So right, when the Chancellor might be announcing a relaxation of greenbelt rules this week. Land and the production of food for the nation is more important; our trading deficit will become a concern post Brexit. 

Keith William Hendry 

Scotland is self-sufficient in fish, meat, dairy products, vegetables & we have copious amounts of water. Our whisky is the biggest net export cash raiser for the exchequer.

Jane Cooper says it all:

“One problem is that UK farmers, farming to support and enhance our environment and with high animal welfare standards, will be competing on a world market with overseas companies that produce food cheaply by trashing their environments, abusing animals and paying slave-labour wages to employees.  That’s not a fair ‘market’ for UK farmers to be competing in.  

“If you can find a way to have farmers fairly paid what it actually costs to produce food in the UK to the environmental and welfare standards expected by most people in UK, then I agree subsidies wouldn’t be needed”.

 

 

 

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In the dark? Could there be a ‘bespoke’ agricultural policy after Brexit

MP for Stroud, David Drew, Shadow Farming and Rural Affairs Minister, retweeted a link to a Farmers Weekly article,Devolved regions left in dark about plans to take farming out of transition agreement’.

Scottish Office Minister Ian Duncan has suggested that the UK will have its own agricultural policy in March 2019. He said: “We believe taking UK farming out of the CAP during transition is the right thing to do. As farmers you will be better off”.

Professor Dieter Helm, chair of the Natural Capital Committee, is advising the Department lor Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on British agricultural policy (BAP) post-Brexit. He says the EU’s principle of paying farmers for the area of land they farm under the basic payment scheme (BPS) should go and asserts that the BPS does not actually affect food production.

But UK farmers subsidise the low (and unjust) prices received for the food they produce with the BPS payments, which average about £25,000 a year per farm according to an article in the Private Eye, issue 1456, which refers to figures from DEFRA’s Farm Business Income Survey :

For 2016-17, the average cereal farm is forecast to make a profit of £38,000 and the average lowland livestock farm £19,000, though the survey also noted that over 20% of cereal, dairy, lowland grazing livestock, mixed and poultry farms failed to make a profit in 2016/17. Without the BPS, most farms would have traded at a loss.

But the DEFRA survey’s figures were said to include BPS receipts and exclude farmers’ wages or personal drawings.

A 2016 LEI study for the NFU concluded that all UK regions would show, on average, a decline in farm incomes if the UK government fully abolished the direct payments. The UK trade liberalisation scenario would show the most significant changes; farm incomes would decline in all regions, except for the East of England where half of the UK horticultural farms are located, as they do not receive single farm payments (now superseded by BPS since Jan 2015) for fruit, vegetables and table potatoes.

How will UK farmers be protected from subsidised food exports from EU farmers who still enjoy BPS payments?

The column in Private Eye (1443) pointed out that given targetted production subsidies Brexit presents a real opportunity to introduce a bespoke British agricultural policy. A British agricultural policy (BAP) could:

  • encourage more mixed patterns of farming,
  • discourage industrial livestock production and
  • reverse the increasing imbalance in Britain’s trade in food.

To this end, DEFRA is urged to seek advice from other quarters – Professor Tim Lang comes first to mind.

 

 

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