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How the crunch squeezes farmers

by
25 February 2009

The downturn is hitting farming — especially in the organic sector, says Anthony Russell

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.

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