What Tony Blair needs to know

The Food and Farming Commission will report to the PM by Christmas. Stefan Jarmolowicz asked leading

Richard Burge Chief executive, Countryside Alliance
The commission should think along the lines of putting forward proposals to turn the Common Agricultural Policy of "volume subsidies" into something more practical. We should get rid of the existing CAP and replace it with something that will aid all the rural community. It's about time we started looking abroad. Many of the successful projects I've been involved with were in Asia, and look at some of the successes France has had in its rural communities, where farmers have been able to come up with solutions themselves. The commission has to be radical, but not to the extent that things are not practical. I have a sneaking suspicion that this commission is ready for change.

Second, I would like to see recommendations to ensure and sustain opportunities for employment. We need to make sure that jobs are emerging from farming that can go to locals, diversifying their opportunities. Many of the jobs are either high-grade technicians or security guards; sometimes their pay is two-thirds of the minimum wage. We really need to ensure that farming can provide profitable livings for everyone.

Vickie Swales Head of Agriculture, RSPB
In the short term, there is certainly scope for Defra to make increased funding available in order to diversify the quality of food produce coming from our farms. It's really crucial that the government recognises that food production is the link between social, environmental and economic needs. Funding is the key. We would like to see significant funds made available for integrated rural projects and agri-environment schemes. We've worked closely with projects such as those in Bodmin and the Bowland project in Yorkshire, which are prime examples of how farmers have worked successfully to integrate themselves into the rural community, and have not intensified their farms, and have farmed in more wildlife-friendly ways. To do this, the government has to ensure that advice is available on the ground. Farmers have been told for so long how to run things that asking them to do things radically differently means setting up government training schemes.

Unfortunately, all this is going to take a lot of money and investment from the government. So the longer-term aim has to be reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which will hopefully free up the money needed to maintain these agri-environment schemes and achieve greater integration at a grass-roots level.

Tony Banks MP
First, we need to get some economic sense in organising our agricultural industry. You don't need to be a screaming Thatcherite to realise that the current economics just do not make sense. The agricultural industry gets more subsidies than anything else, but let's face it, tourism contributes much more to GDP than agriculture. It employs more people as well. Paying farmers not to grow things seems completely nonsensical. If we can rethink the economics, it will give us a good opportunity to rethink our entire rural policy and allow us to concentrate on restoring the countryside for the enjoyment of everyone. There is so much talk about not chopping down the rainforest - well, why not apply the same sort of thinking to our own countryside? We should employ the farmers also to be custodians of their land, and make sure that the countryside is a valuable source of eco-tourism.

Second, we should take the opportunity to reform the husbandry of animals. Animal welfare should be a paramount concern, and I think that intensive farming is both damaging and degrading, not only to the animals themselves, but also to us, because we're poisoning ourselves.

Julian Morris Co-director, Environment and Technology Programme, Institute of Economic Affairs
Farmers still feed from the subsidy trough, to the detriment of consumers and the environment alike. Environmental and consumer groups thrive on fear and tend to exaggerate the risks of modern agriculture. Organic producers and retailers benefit from these scares and have sought to claim - in spite of much evidence to the contrary - that their food is safer and more environment-friendly than other types of food. If this odd coalition had its way, Britain would be turned into a museum of 19th-century farming supported mostly by the state.

What should be done? A radical approach would be to acknowledge that the primary sources of trust in matters of food safety and quality are the brand manufacturers and retailers. In a competitive market, these organisations have strong incentives to ensure that the food they supply is safe, nutritious, plentiful and cheap. While the drive to reduce costs might in principle create incentives to cut corners, reputation and the threat of legal action would, to a very large extent, keep these in check. Tesco's swift and absolute response to the presence of E coli on a consignment of organic mushrooms last year is in stark contrast to Maff's slow and inadequate initial responses to BSE and foot-and- mouth.

More importantly, though, the subsidies must stop. And that means "environmental" subsidies, too. Those who want to preserve the British countryside as a museum can do so by donating money to one of the many charities that favour such an approach, but don't expect the rest of us to pay for it.

Patrick Holden Director, Soil Association
The top priority is to recognise that public health is directly connected to agricultural practices. Intensive farming is both directly and indirectly responsible for all these food scares. It is the underlying cause, and we believe that this will be the cause of public health problems for years. Many of these are in the pipeline; it's a long-term problem. There is practically no one on the Food and Farming Commission representing this interest, and the connection has got to be addressed.

Second, the government has got to have the courage to be radical. Previous ministerial reports have just gathered dust on the shelf, doing nothing more than upholding the status quo with an insignificant green "tint". If this commission is going to make a difference, it's going to have to have the courage to bring about change. Even when we have a crisis like foot-and-mouth and the government is presented with a better alternative, namely vaccination, it just doesn't do anything. Trying to stop the super-tank is going to be a real challenge, but it's got to happen. Think the unthinkable, and put it into practice tomorrow.

Kate Parminter Director, Council for the Protection of Rural England
The countryside cannot wait for the CAP to reform itself; the government needs to make changes now. We would like to see more money diverted from the CAP to the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP), which gets money out to aid rural support. At the moment, the government diverts 2 per cent of farm subsidies delivered by the CAP into the ERDP. The commission should ensure that up to 20 per cent of EU farm subsidies is directed into the ERDP - this is critical.

The other piece of advice is that the commission should recognise that local food, which is largely ignored in the national setting, is crucial to rural economies. Local food accounts for up to 70 per cent of produce in rural areas, and the government must evaluate its importance, not least for employment purposes. If there is higher local employment, then it will link with the natural beauty and tranquillity of the countryside to make a marketable commodity.

Unless the commission recognises the importance of this sector, the monolithic food chain will remain the status quo.

David Coleman Director, Countryside Agency
There are two audiences that the commission, and hence the government, will need to speak to. The first is the public, and it is critical that this report sets out a new vision or framework for food and farming in England, not just confined to the issues of food safety and food security. This vision needs to engage the consumer and show that, when you put something into your supermarket trolley, you are actively influencing decisions about the future of the countryside. This was illustrated by the case of foot-and-mouth. It's important that the public are made aware of their role as consumers in supporting an attractive, lived-in countryside. They can either help or hinder this.

The second audience the commission needs to speak to is young people. We need to encourage young people to take up careers in the countryside, not just as farmers, but in a broader role as well. It's a worrying statistic that the average age of farmers is 58. Even before foot-and-mouth, young people had no vision of a career in farming. We need to attract young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs in the next ten or 20 years, or there's going to be a huge decline.

Elin Jones Shadow secretary for agriculture and rural development, Plaid Cymru
The commission has to recognise that the basis for the future of agriculture has to be food production. Food, in a Welsh context, should concentrate on quality: reared on grass, not through intensive but extensive farming. We cannot compete with the world markets, so farming has to become localised. The commission has to recognise and ensure that the issues of land use, providing environmental goods and access to the countryside can live side by side in a local setting.

Second, employment in the countryside is very important. There is so much depopulation in rural areas, and so many job losses, that the government should look to maintain agricultural employment as part of rural economic development. Agriculture shouldn't become a practice devoid of humans.

Martin Haworth Policy director, National Farmers' Union (NFU)
We have to ignore anyone who claims to have a simple answer to the future of farming in this country. There will be dozens beating a path to the door, claiming that the future lies in farmers' markets, or managing the countryside, or organics, or diversification. All these are important. But the truth is that if farming is to have a viable future, it will have many different futures. There are scores of potential markets open to farmers. For some, it will continue to be in traditional production for traditional markets; for others, it will be in producing speciality foods and capturing more of the value in the food chain. Some will be able to produce new crops for new markets, particularly renewable raw materials and energy; yet others will provide services to society in the form of environmental or landscape enhancement. The key will be to enable farmers to respond to these markets effectively.

Second, the commission must not forget that farming is a business. Society does have special claims on farmers, both because it provides them with a lot of public money and because farmers occupy about 80 per cent of the land area in this country. But the view that farmers can and should be infinitely regulated and directed is a dangerous illusion. The more that farmers are denied the opportunity of making a reasonable return in the market place, the more they will be thrown back to reliance on the public purse. This can result only in ever-growing subsidies or greatly fewer farmers; or probably both.

Michael Jack Tory MP, member of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee
When people talk of reforming the CAP, it usually involves reducing or stopping subsidies. But this would take £3bn away from UK agriculture. The commission needs to consider what the impact of that would be: how would we cope with a New Zealand-style no-subsidy regime? We are constantly told that farmers have a stewardship role, so money has to be reinvested to cater for this. But the commission has to first ask themselves whether they want a perfectly manicured countryside or whether it is just a case of pulling up weeds and keeping it tidy? When they have decided that, then they can decide on how best to finance it. The other knock-on effect of a no-subsidy system would be on horticulture. Horticulture receives paltry subsidies, yet is an essential part of agriculture. In East Anglia, horticulture dominates, and has shown in both land use and employment that it can be the way forward. So the commission has to decide what sort of exit strategy will be put in place for both horticulture and agriculture should subsidies be reduced.

Second, the commission should look at how British farmers can co-operate properly. If you look across Europe, then co-operation, in terms of both marketing and vertical integration, is the norm. Yet, in Britain, we have this stoic independence - "I can make it on my own". We should explore this pysche, and then change it so that farmers take responsibility for their own value-added chain.

Caroline Lucas MEP, South East Region (Green Party)
We need big ideas and fundamental change. That means replacing the outdated CAP with a new agricultural system based on the relocalisation of our food supply, limiting the needless transport of food by meeting our basic needs from closer to home. Key elements of this approach would be policies designed to prioritise shorter supply routes and regional markets; the introduction of eco-taxation to internalise the environmental costs of damaging and unsustainable production methods; and support to farmers, enabling them to shift from intensive to extensive systems, including organic agriculture, and an end to the export of live animals.

Second, the commission will have to expose the contradictions that are already inherent in its mandate. The mandate asks for advice on how to make farming more sustainable and better able to meet higher animal-welfare standards, while simultaneously being more competitive in international markets. Yet the message I'm getting from farmers is clear: under the current economic system, it is simply impossible to do both at the same time. If we want higher standards, the government must be prepared to protect them from cheaper imports from countries with lower standards. That will involve hard negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, which currently prohibits countries from distinguishing between products on the basis of production.

Yet challenging this rule is essential: the ability to distinguish between different production methods is central to the task of achieving sustainable development.

Kevin Hawkins Commercial director, Safeway plc
I would like to see the commission focus on the following issues: How can we increase the general awareness of how the food supply chain works? Much comment in the media tends to assume that only two parties are involved - farmers and retailers - to the exclusion of the various stages in between. In reality, the process that separates the farmer and the grower from the final consumer is complex, costly and, in some cases, inefficient. The commission must look very hard at how the supply chain can be shortened and made more responsive to consumers.

Is there a long-term future for smaller farms and food processors, given the growing importance of scale economies at all stages of the food supply chain? Personally, I believe there is, but to secure it we will need a more integrated supply chain, particularly between farmers and processors.Otherwise, those small to medium-sized businesses that can neither compete in commodity markets nor offer any specialist, niche products will go to the wall.

What can all of us do to help regenerate rural communities? There is no magic solution, but if farmers, manufacturers, retailers and the government get round the table, we could do something constructive. We look to the commission for some practical ideas.

Bob Bansback Corporate strategy director, Meat and Livestock Commission
The commission needs to ensure that there are clear recommendations on the future policy framework for the red meat sector, such that all parts of the chain can plan ahead with greater certainty. Second, in circumstances where the red meat industry accepts the need for change, it needs to see commitment from all parties to ensure that these changes result in improved returns for all parts of the supply chain.

Robert Vint National co-ordinator, Genetic Food Alert
While civil society - consumers, small farmers and environmentalists - want to defend local food production and sustainable, humane and healthy farming by keeping it in the hands of small and organic farmers, most western governments seem dedicated to GM crops, global trade and the corporate control of agriculture. World Trade Organisation policies support this insane process by preventing nations from setting high health, safety or environmental standards, and by preventing information about the real quality of food from appearing on labels - but they do nothing to stop government subsidy of agrochemicals. While the public want improved standards, globalisation forces nations into a race to cut all standards in order to survive in the global market.

Bruce Friedrich Senior campaign co-ordinator, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
Primarily, I want to stop the dependence on animal agriculture, not only because of the brutality shown to animals, but also because of the potential effects on humans. But it's really the animals I'm concerned with. Take chickens. Due to genetic engineering, some of these chickens have gross deformities before they are even two months old. By seven weeks, they're crippled with heart problems and deformed legs, which isn't really surprising given that they are growing at six or seven times the normal rate.

This is putting profit over principle to an unimaginable degree. Incredibly, chickens and other poultry are not even afforded the protection of the Animal Welfare Act or the Humane Slaughter Act. Every year, producers, for whom profits override common decency, subject five to six billion chickens to misery beyond belief. We have a barbaric situation where chickens are conscious while their throats are slit. This simply isn't on. Related to this would be to overview and reform the slaughterhouse system in its entirety. The commission needs to pressurise the government into following the European model of outlawing battery cages and enacting more humane laws to protect hens. The government should legislate to outlaw this brutal cage system and ensure that more comfortable and healthy nests are built. Our breeding systems need a complete overhaul.

Malcolm Hepworth Retail controller, Co-operative Group
As a consumer-owned organisation that is not only a food retailer but also a major farmer and dairy, we believe the commission must start from what consumers want from the food and farming industries, and must work to promote a new spirit of co-operation between these related industries to meet the needs of consumers. But the real focus must be on achieving a thriving rural economy. The commission must call now for an end to production-based subsidy regimes, and ensure that, from here on in, the Common Agricultural Policy is directed away from production and into rural integration and safeguarding the countryside and the environment.

Interviews by Stefan Jarmolowicz

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