For the first time in more than a decade, a government minister has been talking about ensuring that we have something to eat, says Clive Aslet.
Farmers are resilient folk. Just when the rest of us want a break from all thoughts of food, they bustle off to Oxford for a conference that is about nothing but.
Yet this year it has been worth braving the chill of the city’s Gothic Revival examination halls. For the first time in more than a decade, a government minister has been talking about the importance of growing food, not just to keep the landscape in good order or to provide a habitat for wildlife, but to give our countrymen and women something to eat.
The speech was met with some cynicism, given that it was only four years ago that the Treasury produced a document damning farming as an old-fashioned, high-risk activity. A rich country such as Britain, it said, could afford to buy food from wherever it chose. This system – saving the world by getting developing countries to sell us their sugar-snap peas – suited the Brown agenda, no matter that British agriculture would be sacrificed. So was it just the fact that an election is pending that led the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, whose expression always resembles that of a startled rabbit, to wake up with a start and realise that even much-despised rural voters are worth something?
Well, yes and no. Certainly, Benn’s strategy, “Food 2030″, is a 20-year plan of the kind beloved by Chairman Mao, complete with pictures of smiling children welcoming the new dawn. And it’s a bit rich, as one beef-faced farmer at Oxford says, to court his kind after 13 years of what has sometimes seemed like active malevolence: the animal holocaust of foot and mouth, the ruination of the British pig industry when uniquely tough welfare standards were imposed, allowing foreign producers to undercut ours; the refusal to cull the infected badgers who are spreading bovine TB through the dairy herd.
But there does seem to be a genuine sea-change at work here. Someone in authority has spotted that, as the world’s population soars towards nine billion, and the amount of land on which it is possible to raise crops starts to decline, we’d better have a strategy for feeding ourselves. Certainly, Peter Kendall, the president of the NFU, is ecstatic: “For the first time,” he says of ‘Food 2030′, “we have a government document which recognises that ‘supporting productive farming’ is the prime object of the Common Agricultural Policy.” Significantly, in yesterday’s speeches, barely a wafer could be squeezed between Benn and his Tory shadow, Nick Herbert. But Mr Herbert doesn’t have to answer for Labour’s record (and bravely, his team is speaking out on the need to reduce the “wildlife reservoir” for TB: not many votes in being beastly to badgers.)
However, even if a golden age is around the corner, it is not yet evident on the ground. Even the barley barons, whom you might expect to be rolling in the predicted boom in cereal prices, speak through gritted teeth. They are adjusting to a new era of extreme price volatility – fantastic if, like the Cambridgeshire magnifico Oliver Walston two years ago, you’ve managed to sell your wheat for £200 a tonne; hopeless when, as now, the same stuff only fetches £80 a tonne. These excessive fluctuations have nothing to do with traditional gluts and shortages: they’re caused by speculators betting on commodities’ futures.
At present, every crop that goes under the combine loses its owner £15-£20 a tonne. But don’t weep: farmers still have the Single Farm Payment to keep them afloat, and since 22 out of the 27 EU countries want the CAP to continue, it won’t go away, whatever the British public might say.
Even so, Mr Benn’s injunction to produce more food, while doing it in a more sustainable way, raises a guffaw from some of the John Bulls listening to him. “Of course we could square the circle,” declares Mr Walston, “but only by using GM, and the Government has caved in to the ‘Frankenstein Food’ lobby.”
Mr Benn expects the revival of farming to be carried on the backs of consumers willing to support British food. There may be something in what he says. Wherever I travel, I see menus boasting of provenance: not just Buccleuch beef in the Savoy, but local sausages on the breakfast table of many a humble B and B. At Christmas, many families were careful to buy the best possible British-reared turkeys and ham: no wonder Waitrose increased its sales by 9 per cent.
But there is only so much that the middle classes can do. Yes, we shall need to grow more food in Britain. Eventually, we’ll have to. But until that time comes, we have to keep agriculture alive. Partly that will involve reining in the supermarkets, as the Tories propose. But that in itself won’t be enough. Most farmers are old men; their skills are not being handed on to their children, who can get better pay, in more comfortable conditions, in other jobs. Thank goodness for the hard-working Poles and Lithuanians, who have kept many farm businesses going. If they ever went home, we’d be sunk.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of ‘Country Life’.