The New Statesman Interview - Lord Whitty
Farmers beware: the minister thinks it is time they produced what the consumer wants. Lord Whitty in
Anyone around the Labour Party in the Kinnock years remembers "Larry" - generally to be found at the edge of the gathering or the photograph, neatly dressed, with a trim pepper-and-salt moustache and a dry half-smile. For nearly ten years, during the long opposition slog of reining in the wild ones, then rebuilding a shattered party that had at times seemed on the verge of extinction, Larry Whitty was Labour's general secretary.
He was the calm, reassuring presence when, all around, others were shouting, losing their tempers and indulging themselves in bouts of grandstanding. Laconic, efficient and quietly spoken, he was really the person everyone meant when they talked about "Labour apparatchiks". Larry, however, was the benign apparatchik. So it's interesting to find him at the heart of one of the most difficult producer-consumer issues of our times, the struggle over food, farming and the environment, one of the cadre of Kinnockites (Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt, John Reid) rising in the Blair government.
Larry, now Lord Whitty to you, works at a ministry that few people yet understand. It looks like Maff, the old and discredited Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It acts like Maff, say its critics. So isn't Defra - the cumbersomely named new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - really just the same old farmer-dominated, lackadaisical department criticised by so many MPs and official reports?
"Absolutely not," says Whitty. The old Maff had no concern for the environment in its title and, more often than not, in its doings. "We are a green department," Whitty says. "Greenery is not the fringe, it is the centre of this department, and therefore to encourage more environmental and sensible methods of production is one of our central objectives."
Fighting talk. But is the government really prepared to take on one of the nation's loudest and most organised vested interest groups: the farmers? Whitty jokes that when he heard I was coming to talk about "food", he didn't know whether I was coming to interview him about rural production or the best restaurants in Brighton (where the Labour Party conference is due to gather soon and where, as a Labour official, he ate more meals than he cares to remember).
At first sight, Whitty doesn't strike me as a passionate green. His ministerial fruit bowl, for example, is not brimming with juicy, seasonal plums, apples and pears, but contains only three ageing lemons - in case he feels like a slice in a cup of herbal tea. Yet Whitty's vision of what needs to be done to the whole process of how we get the food on our plates in this country is starkly different to the present system.
"We do need radical changes," he asserts, though is quick to point out, before I can, that "a lot of the radical changes have to be negotiated in Europe, and so a lot of the radical changes are not that quick in coming".
Above all, Whitty wants the length of the food chain drastically shortened: "The number of times a grain of wheat or a piece of meat changes hands before actually getting on your plate conceals a number of inefficiencies . . . it doesn't mean that anybody individually is inefficient but, taking the totality, there are some inefficiencies in the chain."
He is right: farmers sell to livestock dealers or the abattoir, who sell on to the wholesaler, the meat market, then the supermarket and finally the customer. One piece of meat can criss-cross the country several times before appearing on the consumer's plate. We both talk wistfully of the farmers' markets in France, which even the smallest of towns and villages seem to enjoy a couple of times a week. "The French markets are an enormous social feature of France and keep French farmers much more directly in touch with their local consumers," he agrees.
So why can't we have that system here? There are, Whitty believes, around 2,500 farmers' markets in Britain, and their number is growing fast. Yet he is aware of the pitfalls in a country that doesn't have a tradition of living closely off the land. "It is a slightly niche market, very middle-class and ecologically aware - it does require a level of environmental consciousness in the consumer."
And he warns that "we have to find ways of ensuring we don't get a two-tier food market in the sense that the poor take mass-produced, cheap, not environmentally sensitive food".
To try to tackle the system as a whole, the government has set up a policy commission on farming and food to look into every aspect of farming. Its report could have a profound effect on farmers in Britain. After all, as Whitty says, "what the farmers produce is a long way removed from what the consumers want" today. That's partly, he believes, because the subsidies for production in the Common Agriculture Policy have distorted the pattern of production. He gives the lamb industry as an example. "We've now got several times more lambs than we had at a time when people ate more lamb, because we've got a CAP which has encouraged production by headage - the number of ewes you've got, rather than the market value." Put simply, farmers are subsidised to rear far more lambs than are wanted by the consumer.
Now, Whitty says, there's clear evidence that consumers want organically produced goods, and, as a result, the government has "significantly increased" help given to people to change to organic farming. There is "considerable scope", he thinks, for an increase in organic farming, but he also wants to encourage "sustainable farming" that isn't 100 per cent organic.
"Sustainable farming" seems to have become his watchword. What the government is aiming for is a farming industry that can survive economically, and which doesn't destroy the environment it uses: that's going to mean big changes for many farmers. So why not take the "big bang" approach adopted in New Zealand, where the government withdrew all farm subsidies suddenly, forcing many farmers to go out of business instantly?
Whitty is against the methods used, but not the result: "Given that most subsidies come through the CAP, it's probably not feasible even if desirable, and given the social problems of farmers in recent years, putting them through a big bang would not be particularly sensible anyway." He wants a more gradual, planned process for Britain's farmers, though admits that "it would probably go through some of the same transformations as the New Zealand farmers went through".
That's the big picture, but much of Whitty's energy since taking up his new job has been diverted to dealing with the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Has the government cracked it? "I'm not sure," he replies honestly. At present, it's only evident in Cumbria and Northumberland, but "while the disease is anywhere there is always the danger of a further outbreak". The winter months will be a test because "there are increased movements, and any movement is not risk-free, so we're not there yet".
So, I ask, wasn't there anything the government could have done differently? Why not more widespread vaccination? Whitty admits "there are things we could have done better", including the "focus of resources", but he doesn't think there are significantly different policies that should have been pursued. As for vaccination, he declares it a myth that widespread vaccination would have contained the problem. "A lot of people think vaccination is to avoid you culling huge numbers of animals. It does not. The Netherlands, which is often pointed to for getting rid of the disease very quickly, killed all the animals that were vaccinated - roughly five times as many animals per initial outbreak as we did. So it's not an alternative."
Confidence in the British meat industry is still "badly shaken", Whitty admits. Overproduction and mass farming are among the culprits that have contributed to the current problems, and Whitty doesn't shy away from declaring that "we need a reduction in the total herd".
While being careful not to threaten or antagonise the farmers too much, he says: "This new department needs to see farming as only part of the rural problem; there have been some very serious tensions during the course of this [foot-and-mouth] disease, which have pointed up the fallacy of helping farming and not helping anything else."
The supermarkets, too, are in his sights: although they "have brought a wide range of quality and quite often environmental goods to the consumer, the question is whether taking 75 per cent of all food through the supermarkets has a detrimental effect further down the chain". Whitty talks of a "new relationship" being needed between the supermarket, the farmer and the consumer, with farmers more directly in touch with consumers, much more aware of what is wanted on the table.
Talking of what consumers want, I say they clearly don't seem to want genetically modified food - so why is the government going ahead with trials? On this issue, it looks as though the government is listening: "Public opinion is a major factor in the attitude to GM food," he says. "The government is cautious, and although there are potential benefits in crops . . . human attitudes have to be taken into account."
Whitty talks calmly. That's not surprising in the former apparatchik who helped hold Labour together in its wilder-ness years.
But when you ponder what he is saying, there's cold steel glinting through his words. Farmers, beware: new Labour didn't get to power without painful change. The minister may be polite, but he's also a radical.