Is the Sun Rising on a New Era for British Farming?

Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, set out the Government’s goal for a productive and thriving UK farming industry when she spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference  yesterday. The Secretary of State characterised farming in the UK as a ‘sunrise… not a sunset’ sector of the economy, stating that ‘no ambition is too high for British food and farming’. In a speech that skipped briskly through the history of agricultural production in this country, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s import of the potato to the UK in the 1500’s to last month’s release of a report by Defra on the latest trials to cull badgers to control Bovine TB, a vision of future farming was introduced, but it was one in which nature was rather noticeably absent.

The Secretary of State outlined the value of the agricultural sector to the UK economy, some £100 billion annually, employing one in eight people. The production of food shapes the UK’s landscape, with 70 % of the UK’s land in agricultural cultivation: food is the biggest manufacturing industry in this country. With the population globally set to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050 and with the rise of an affluent middle class, with the demands for resources this will bring, the demand for food worldwide is expected to grow by 60% over the same period.

The Government see this growth as presenting an opportunity to British farming; to innovate, to expand and to improve production. Whilst acknowledging that the UK will never be self-sufficient in terms of the food we produce and consume here, Liz Truss suggested that there is scope to expand markets for locally grown produce. Central Government has committed to procuring all food that it purchases locally if at all possible, from 2017, for example. Food and farming was presented as an industry that is ‘at the heart of this Government’s agenda for Britain’s economic future’.

Yet it was concerning that there was no mention in the speech of the vital interdependence between agricultural production and ecology. Agriculture is of course a vital (provisioning) ecosystem service, depending fundamentally on healthy, well-functioning supporting services, such as soil formation, water cycling and nutrient recycling, and on biodiversity, such as pollinators. The Government’s own Natural Environment White Paper, clearly recognises the importance of a healthy, functioning environment to a productive and economically viable farming sector, stating that “a flourishing natural environment and a competitive, resilient farming and food industry [is needed] to contribute to global food security.” We would have wished to have seen this relationship recognised in the speech, absent as it was too from the Secretary of State’s first speech on the environment, to Policy Exchange, last year. The natural environment seemed to be characterised as, in fact, a source of ‘challenge’ to the farming sector, acting as a reservoir of animal and plant diseases, rather than a fundamental underpinning to the ‘opportunity’ that the Government wishes to harness in agricultural improvement.

Elsewhere in the speech, the Secretary of State mentioned two areas of work which are exercising the BES External Affairs Team at the moment and which will form a core component of our work in the coming weeks. The first, the relation between control of badgers and the incidence of TB in cattle, has been well documented on this blog. The Secretary of State was clear that the Government will proceed with their ‘comprehensive strategy’ to control BTb, with cattle movement controls, vaccination in edge areas and culling in areas where the disease is rife. The Government will do ‘whatever it takes to eradicate this disease’ and ‘even if the protest groups don’t like it’, bullish statements reflecting the statement made by the Government when the latest report on the badger culling trials was released just before Christmas.

The second concerns the REFIT of the EU Nature Directives: the review of the Birds and Habitats Directives to assess their fitness for purpose. This takes place against a backdrop of an instruction from the President of the European Commission to Commissioner Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, to explore streamlining the Directives into one piece of legislation. In this context, Liz Truss’ statement that she was ‘determined to see change at the European level’ and that, essentially, decisions should be made in Britain for Britain’s benefit, reflects the UK’s position as one of the Member States pushing for the REFIT to take place. That this could result in a watering down of the cornerstone of nature legislation across Europe, including in the UK, is a concern to many NGOs, including the BES.

As always, we welcome comment and engagement from our members and others on these and other issues.