What future for farming?

Silly season or no, one domestic theme simply would not lie down and keep quiet this summer while politicians trundled off in their caravans for a well-earned break. Rural crisis - with its attendant sub-plots of foot-and-mouth, the continuing fallout from BSE, mounting agricultural poverty, GM farm trials, and so on - was scarcely off the current affairs agenda for a single day last month.

There is a high level of consensus among politicians, producer and consumer interests about the key problems. Agricultural supply chains are too long, undermining the viability of local economies and small to medium farmers, raising the cost of food to the consumer and handing decisive power to the big retailers in the middle. Linked to this, continuing Common Agricultural Policy subsidies keep inefficient farmers in business, shielding them against the cold winds of global competition and stifling any incentive to innovate. So: modernise the farming industry, reconnect relationships between farmers and their local customers and, before you can say Tommy Archer, we'll be on the road to recovery.

Always easier said than done. Take the CAP. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single person left in Britain who would mount a serious defence of the current arrangements for CAP subsidies. Even the National Farmers' Union has realised it is a lost cause. But there are at least two significant strands of argument about what should happen. One says redirect subsidy towards environmental stewardship; the other says abolish it altogether and let the market sort the sheep from the goats.

The argument is, in any case, almost academic: the CAP will be reformed only when there is agreement among EU heads of state to do it, and that could mean nothing much happens for the rest of this decade.

As for overlong supply chains, the remedy, we are told, lies in diversity. Tomorrow's aspiring farmers will, above all, need to be entrepreneurs, able to exploit the appropriate opportunity in energy production, tourism and leisure management, retail, landscape management or a host of other sectors. And it's not just sectoral diversification: even within the old core business of food production, it is argued that there is room for the (efficient) small-scale niche-market specialist (both organic and non), and the export-driven intensive agribusiness farmer. The former will create networks of relationships with big local retailers, farmers' markets, corner shops - they may even run their own distribution services, packing schemes, and so on. The latter will guarantee our continued toe-hold in the global market. This particular future has great appeal politically. But toss a few grains of GM corn into the formula and, as a strategy for food production, diversification could easily fall apart.

As if rural policy-making were not fraught enough, another facet of our postwar "cheap food" legacy is inching its way up the agenda, as several of our contributors indicate. This is health - or, more precisely, diet- and lifestyle-related illness such as diabetes, certain cancers and the biggie, heart disease. There is something particularly nannying about the observation that we are all becoming obese blobs because no one gets taught home economics at school any more and we're all addicted to fast food. And this government (remember Bernie Ecclestone) will have little enthusiasm to start poking its nose into our freezers to check up on how many handy packets of deep-fried Mars bars lurk there. On the other hand, as our north Cumbrian case study shows (page xxix), innovative local health-driven schemes can start to make a difference.

For now, the future of food and farming lies with the odd bunch who comprise the Food and Farming Commission, set up by Tony Blair in August and expected to have found The Answer by December. If nothing else, it conveys a sense of urgency. It is implausible that the commission will come up with a satisfactory blueprint. But it will find many useful provocations and valuable policy principles among the contributions here.

Jane Taylor

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