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Farmers are still hungry for change

Reviving UK food production is impossible without undoing policies and laws hostile to producers

Timing is everything, and the 10 August announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - amounting to an inevitable rise in food prices - comes deliberately late. Low food inflation is every government's friend, no matter the party. When an administration is on its last legs, such revelations are made knowing only that it will not be the recipient of public anger.

There is nothing especially radical about the "radical rethink of food production" contained in Hilary Benn's UK Food Security Assessment. He admits that we must reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate; that water should be used more efficiently; that the depletion of fish stocks should be halted, waste reduced and the food supply secured abroad and in Britain.

But every policy connected to the food supply chain made by this government is a bar to Benn's suggested measures - especially when it comes to securing and increasing UK production. There has been no single swingeing blow to the country's self-sufficiency (now at 60 per cent), but a gradual chipping away at the whole infrastructure. Ask a farmer, fisherman, market trader, factory owner, butcher, artisan producer or slaughterhouse boss, and each has a view on why British food cannot compete with cheaper global commodities, bought at a high cost to human health and the environment. (The government has realised the £8bn cost of the obesity epidemic could be cut if we produced healthier food. A tax on junk food? Unlikely, given the power of the supermarkets and fast-food chains.)

Reviving UK food production is impossible without undoing policies and laws hostile to producers. The meat industry is burdened with overregulation. In particular, UK hill farmers know that the "radical rethink" should include reviving production from British grassland and moors. Farms and fisheries alike struggle with utterly inadequate conservation measures. Fish numbers will not recover while it is policy to discard thousands of tonnes of dying netted fish caught outside their species quota. Encouragement of aquaculture permits the depletion of wild fish stocks used for fish food. Beef and dairy farmers ask in earnest how their herds can stay TB-free while badgers remain protected. The UK has no national (and, vitally, healthy) nut, thanks to a bias towards the survival of the grey squirrel.

There is a lot of land in farming, but little balance. GM crops cannot be an option with no proof that they can combat climate change. With few "mixed" farms at present, little manure is applied to crops, just fuel-hungry artificial nitrogen fertiliser. Since the pigswill ban (following unproven claims that it kicked off the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic) there has been no food-waste outlet. Vast tracts of UK land now produce grains or pulses to feed livestock, not people. If they could talk, pigs would complain that they have been transformed from omnivores into vegetarians.
Market gardens have declined due to labour costs. Our once-great orchards have been grubbed, anyway. There is still no subsidy for UK tomato growers, who cannot compete with Spanish producers on the receiving end of a fat EU wad.

Labour failed UK food producers knowing that revival would bring economic and political agony - though it will one day pay off. But I know one butcher with kind words for the PM. "Gordon Brown is my food hero," he said. "He screwed up the economy, and at last I can sell cheap cuts of meat."

Rose Prince's "New English Table" is published by Fourth Estate (£25)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War