EVERYONE needs to eat. It might therefore be thought that farming is “recession-resilient”. The events of the past few months, however, have exposed some of the deep-seated debates that two years of relative prosperity have obscured.
Gradually, self-sufficiency in food has declined, to the point where 39 per cent of our food is imported. Government policy has been to divert support for agriculture to increase spending on the environment. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme provides a points system, whereby farmers are paid for the management of the countryside, and there has been declining emphasis on food production.
Suddenly, all this has changed. Food and its cost have become central political issues, as wheat prices rose by nearly 200 per cent in two years. To meet the expected demand, the World Bank says that by 2030, world grain production must rise by 50 per cent, and meat production by 60 per cent. Much of the new demand comes from the Far East, where the expanding middle class is abandoning the “rice-bowl diet”, and demands food similar to that of Western societies.
This far-reaching change can be discerned in the speech given by Hilary Benn MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, at the Oxford Farming Conference last month: “British agriculture needs to produce as much food as possible. No ifs, no buts.”
This is now a widely quoted statement, and is interpreted as the green light for a move towards maximising production. The change of attitude has directed attention to two areas: organic and genetically modified (GM).
“ORGANIC” is not a scientific definition, but a system of farming based on ecological principles, with strict limits on the inputs that might cause environmental damage. There are predominantly two types of organic farmer: the ideologically convinced, who hold the organic principles as articles of faith; and those who simply regard it as way of adding value to their products.
As household budgets have come under strain, one farming commentator has said: “This is the death of organic farming.” While clearly this is an exaggeration, the effect on organic farming has been significant.
Shoppers are now much more price sensitive, and there has been a decline in sales of high-cost organic vegetables and fruit, pig, meat, and poultry products. In the poultry and pig sectors, the scarcity of approved organic feeds has driven up the price. In a world where most of the traded soya is now GM, it is both difficult and expensive to obtain GM-free feed.
Both the supermarkets and the farmers are very reluctant to acknowledge that some of their chickens are fed on imported soya, with the likelihood that it contains the product of a GM crop. This is reflected in the fact that “GM-free” is a label less frequently seen, and has been substituted by such labels as “free range” or “locally grown”.
Two months ago, some organic farmers suggested that, in order to meet the decline in some sectors of the organic market, there should be a relaxation of the strict rules, particularly as they affect livestock feed. They asked for a “holiday” in which they could use lower-cost feeds. Some farmers have been unable to maintain organic status, and have returned to conventional systems, thus sacrificing the considerable cost of the initial transfer to organic.
THE OTHER area of growing debate concerns GM crops. So great was the campaign against GMOs (genetically modified organisms), using such slogans as “Frankenstein food”, that the barrier of public acceptability remains high. The effect of this is that GMO crops are not grown in this country (with one exception), and GMO products do not appear in supermarkets.
The Government, however, has always supported a scientific approach to agriculture and continuing trials. But the law requires the location of trial sites to be made public, and they are immediately vandalised, as was the potato trial run by the University of Leeds last year.
In a world of food scarcity, it is increasingly maintained that Europe can no longer indulge in the luxury of objecting to GM products. Already in this country, significant quantities of GM animal feed are imported. The next stage is likely to be the growth of non-food GM crops, such as sugarbeet and grain for fuel.
It will be a long time, though, before food from GM crops is on the supermarket shelves. The abortive introduction of GM tomato paste, when manufacturers failed to inform anyone that it was GM, and it had to be withdrawn after a great row, casts a long shadow.
THE LIST of problems facing agriculture is considerable, but perhaps the most intractable is the rise of bovine TB. DEFRA indicates that there was a 27-per-cent increase in 2008. Between January and September, 27,000 cattle were slaughtered, and 7000 farms placed under movement-restriction orders — all this at an annual cost of £80 million.
It is difficult not to have sympathy with Mr Benn, as he approaches a problem that is causing such heartache and loss to livestock farmers, particularly in the south-west. Some call for a widespread badger cull, but it is hard to believe that this could take place without implications for public order.
Britain is only about 60-per-cent self-sufficient in food, and depends heavily on imports. Maintaining an adequate food supply for a UK population heading towards 75 million over the next 30 years is clearly a formidable task. Governments know that problems with food-supply lead to serious political consequences.
Dr Anthony Russell is Bishop of Ely, and a former President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.