Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Assessing Hilary Benn's Call for UK Farming to Produce Alot More

Excited by Hilary Benn’s call last week for farmers to safeguard food security by “producing a lot more”, and keen to understand what we are all supposed to do, I read the back up papers issued by Defra.

Nothing in those papers looks radical enough to provide a step change in output. And its clear that Defra, whether consciously or unconsciously, is prioritising the environment over productivity.

For the first time Government has produced a set of performance related indicators, or in plain English, a list of things they want to measure. This is important as what gets measured tends to get done. The Sustainable Food and Farming performance indicators show that Government wants to measure 9 areas.

Of the 9, just one, Market Focused Farming, measures farming productivity. The target is for UK farmers to deliver 50% more Gross Value Added than the EU average of 14 pre enlargement countries. Currently the figure is 32%.

The things that Government feels will help achieve the target include more diversification, more collaboration, more membership of farm assurance schemes, more benchmarking, higher levels of training, more organic farming, and more use of risk management tools, particularly in the arable area. Government is working on how to measure farming’s response to climate change, and the cost to farming of regulation.

Whilst all of those indicators are useful, none will deliver big increases in output.

Also specifically farming related is an indicator called The Burden on the Taxpayer, where two sets of figures will be produced, the value of direct CAP payments, and the cost of animal disease and the level of cost sharing. As yet no target has been set for the cost to the taxpayer, either up or down, but it can probably be assumed that the aim is to reduce it.

Of the other 7 performance indicators, three are directly environment related. The Environmental Cost of the Food Chain indicator will measure river water quality, pesticide and fertiliser use,good agricultural and environment condition,pollution incidents, and membership of the Entry level Stewardship Scheme.

Better Use of Natural Resources has a target of halting the decline in soil organic matter. Landscape and Biodiversity has a target of halting the decline in farmland birds by 2014, and then seeing an increase, and also improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It specifically mentions farmer entry to the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme as a way of achieving the objectives.

Animal Health and Welfare targets have yet to be developed.

The final two areas are Public Health, which targets more fruit and veg consumption, and there will be a target for Rural Productivity.

Overall, the indicators are heavily environment related, and suggest that Government actions prioritise environment over productivity.

No one is denying that in the words of Peter Kendall, farmers “must produce more and at the same time impact on the environment less”. And certainly there should be no return to production linked subsidies as this leads to poor quality products, and a complete disconnection from what the market wants.

But there are actions which can make a radical difference to productivity levels, yet contribute to a better environment.

The number one priority has to Research and Development. As yet there is no target for the amount of money to be devoted to agriculture, and current R&D expenditure stands at just £164m. The obvious area for focus is developing disease resistant fruit, veg, cereal and grass species which require minimal water and fertilisers to grow. More has to be done to understand and eradicate animal disease, including animal husbandry and stock management techniques which concentrate on disease prevention and avoid the need for routine treatment.

There are other areas to target. There must be a measure for bovine TB levels. There should be a target for public procurement of British produce. There should be a time frame for sorting out labelling to make clear what is and is not British. And the Rural Development agencies should have a target for direct farm initiatives.

But enough of the whingeing. What can be done? Well, there is a consultation going on, and it is an opportunity for every farmer in the land to make their views known.

All in all, the talk from Benn is disconnected from the walk. Hopefully though, it will be just a short time before his call is turned into practical, prioritised, and funded government action plans.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

FSA Research Furore Shows Organic Movement Must Get Back to its Roots

The FSA’s pronouncement that organic food is no healthier than that farmed conventionally has generated acres of headlines, hundreds of comments, and thrown the organic world into disarray.

It’s interesting to reflect on why the reaction has been so vocal. After all, the FSA was very specific in its research. It stated that its remit was only to look at nutrient content of organic versus conventionally produced products, and it also stated that conclusions were drawn from 55 fully defensible, peer reviewed scientific studies. Its findings echo those of the pro-organic, scientifically based EU project QualityLowInputFood who at the conclusion of 5 years of research said - “Health claims for organic foods are not yet substantiated.”

So why the furore?

One of the problems with the rise and rise of the organic market is that its recent explosion has been due more to hype than substance, fuelled by uncritical affluence.

Any publication over the last few years about organic food implies that it is better for you. Celebrity chefs, food writers in the broadsheets, and bodies such as the Soil Association have all insisted that organic food is the only sensible thing to eat, but they have rarely backed this up with scientific facts. Indeed even after the FSA report was published, a writer in a middle class paper was saying that there are certain food purchases that should always be organic, but yet again gave no reason why, and a Sunday paper had a full page article headlined “We dig out the facts from the manure”, but still filled the page with opinionated claim and counterclaim rather than facts. So one reason for the uproar could be that food writers and chefs may well be feeling very silly about supporting something unfounded, and possibly worried about their credibility.

The Soil Association and other organic supporters will understandably be concerned that their carefully built market will collapse down round their ears, especially in the current difficult economic climate.

So how should the organic world respond?

Instead of rushing to damn the FSA’s findings, organic practitioners should be re-evaluating in a calm, fact based and non spun way, the reasons why people might consider buying organic food.

They are fortunate in that already there is a highly committed core of organic devotees. A look at the reams of comments which newspaper articles generated from the general public gives a good steer on what they value. These people suggest that the main reason for purchase is not what is in organic food but what isn’t. The vast majority say that the reason they buy organic is to avoid pesticides. A few said they just have a belief that the whole system with its focus on the soil onwards is the right way to farm, some feel it is better for the environment, and some feel it promotes higher standards of animal welfare. (Few mentioned taste, although in a health story this is perhaps not surprising).

The organic movement needs to slow down, concentrate on what is true and factually supported about this approach to farming, tell the public and allow them to make an educated choice. Any supporting facts need to be backed by rigorous and defensible research.

This is not a strategy which will support fast growth. Recent IGD research shows that the number of people actively interested in avoiding pesticides for health reasons is relatively small . Far higher is the number seeking to promote good animal welfare, but many issues have been addressed by conventional farming such as free range eggs, and higher welfare pork and chicken. Those interested in animal welfare can choose to buy locally produced meat, and see for themselves whether the animal welfare standards behind their meat is what they want.

So whilst massive market growth will not come from a slower approach, and there may even be a sales decline in the short term, the movement can be sure that their integrity will be protected, the public will be reassured, and longer term, the organic movement will achieve the sustainability and public confidence that it seeks.

What is striking about the organic movement is that its current high powered, fast talking, heavy spinning marketing focus, with its frequent denigration of conventional agriculture, is the complete antithesis of what organic farming is all about. Organic agriculture is a slow maturing way of farming which aims to work in harmony with the natural world to ensure long term sustainability. There is little about it which is unnatural or false. It would be good if organic marketing and organic production were more closely aligned.