Has environmental protection taken the edge off UK farming’s competitiveness? Mark Tinsley makes the case.

Mark Tinsley

Who should run the countryside? This was the banner of an event was hosted by Relu (the Rural Economy and Land Use programme) on Nov 16 this year in Gateshead, UK. It was a day-long opportunity for people from all walks of life to take part in activities coordinated by Relu researchers and debate major questions about the future of the UK countryside.

For one of the debates, I  argued that, although food security and maintaining a healthy environment are both important, food security – or more accurately the competitiveness of UK agriculture – is at this time more important in policy terms. This is not an either-or question, but I think we need to achieve a sustainable balance between food production and maintaining a healthy environment.

Levelling the land

Nationally, I question if we have lost track of the importance of the agricultural competitiveness of our rural environment in favour of environmental protection.

Policy steps in the 2000s reduced spending on competitive agriculture and made the environment a priority, directing resources there through the  two major environmental organisations  Environment Agency and Natural England. And the majority of Rural Development Programme for England funding, which aims to connect agricultural and economic development and promotes environmental stewardship and community sustainability, is also channelled into the environment

What’s more, of the three supposedly equal elements of profit, the environment and social outcomes emanating from the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (the Curry Commission) it was the environmental element that was predominantly picked up. I was a member of the Commission

We also have a plethora of environmental NGOs competing with each other for income, in part, I think, by painting a very black and sometimes inaccurate picture of efficient farming.

Moreover, we have a generation of students who have chosen careers in environmental studies, which is welcome as part of the wider life sciences, but we have seen, until recently, a decrease in interest in crop science and the applied skills to grow food and protect it against attack. (The recent increase in courses, especially at Master’s degree level, in food security-related areas, one of which has been described on this blog, is heartening.)

As a result, we have seen a significant reduction (PDF) in our self sufficiency of indigenous food production and, as illustrated in the Total Factors of Productivity that Defra have produced in the past, since the 1980s UK farming has become relatively less competitive than most of its major competitors in terms of  the national efficiency of  productivity factors compared to the majority of Western EU states and the US.

Finally, the present EU Commission proposals for CAP Reform from 2013 again illustrate how powerful the environmental lobby is across Europe; the existing Greening suggestion for Pillar 1 would involve 7% of subsidised EU land being taken out for environmental enhancement. Not only is this ill thought out, but it would potentially undo much of the good work completed or underway in the UK under our existing environmental schemes.

England my home

Why should we worry about food security? A succession of governments did not, arguing that we were a relatively wealthy nation and could afford to buy food in.

And by food security I am not referring to 100% self sufficiency, we are not even suggesting we should produce 100% of indigenous food (the current total in 2011 was 74% (PDF)). What we should be doing is providing a significantly higher percentage of food that we can produce reasonably competitively.

What has changed?  From 2007-2008 a combination of food shortages and resultant political turmoil, higher and more volatile food prices, a greater awareness of climate change, rising global population, dietary change and water scarcity has created political unease and a change in rhetoric. The media and consumers have also changed their perception because food, particularly the price of it, is now front page news.

The question remains to be answered – does it matter in economic terms if we put more resources into becoming more competitive, efficient and secure with our home produced food and energy? Well, yes it does.

Let us accept that we are thinking in terms of sustainable competitiveness as opposed to short term exhaustion of resources and that we do need to reduce our carbon footprint. More home production of food gives us greater control. More home production will reduce food price volatility, improve our trade balance, create employment opportunities and a more competitive industry will be less dependent on subsidies that may be cut in the future.

Finally, in most cases well managed land adjacent to well managed conservation is better for the environment than letting land revert to scrub or the prevalent dominant species.

Zeitgeist

So we need a policy that balances efficient sustainable food production with well managed intelligent environmental care. But we need to be quite clear what our objectives are.

As it goes, at the Gateshead event, the food security team that I was on not surprisingly lost the debate; the abstainers were in the majority which is illustrative of the present status quo!

But I still maintain that in production terms we need to become world leaders again, and fellow food producer Jim Godfrey has spelt out some ideas on how to do this on a previous blog post here.

We need common cause and understanding between farmers and conservationists, and in relation to the environment we should concentrate on healthy soils and beneficial insects, but above all the area that needs our attention at the moment is the commercial side of the balance.

About Mark Tinsley

Mark Tinsley is a farmer and produced arable crops, potatoes and vegetables on 600ha in South Lincolnshire. He is Chairman of the Commercial Farmers Group, a non-executive Director of NFU Mutual, Chairman of the potato cooperative Nene Potatoes Ltd., a member of Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership Advisory Board and was a member of The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (the Curry Commission).

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