With the general election just a few months away, business leaders around the country are waiting to find out what lies ahead. The agricultural sector is chief among them, keen to find out how a future government plans to feed our ever-growing population and address urgent challenges such as the changing climate, land usage and declining crop yields.
When scanning the potential post-election horizon, it is possible to size up the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats by looking at their record over the past five years. In this time, the government’s £160m support for the agricultural technology sector has received a broadly positive response.
However, other policies such as voluntary health targets for food retailers have come in for criticism. And let us not forget the various decisions around pesticide use and GM which have led to criticism that many policies have been unduly influenced by public opinion rather than scientific evidence.
Labour’s intentions, meanwhile, are a bigger puzzle. There have been suggestions that food security has not been given enough attention in speeches by shadow ministers. And a tweet from Maria Eagle MP, stating that her top priority was climate adaptation, left some observers wondering where the need to increase productivity fits in. It is for these reasons that the New Statesman, in partnership with the Crop Protection Association, convened a round-table discussion with Eagle, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, in order to find out exactly how she and her party are proposing to tackle the challenge of securing our food supply.
From the outset of the meeting, Eagle emphasised in no uncertain terms that she feels the government has failed to produce a long-term, evidence-led strategy for food and farming. Reserving particular criticism for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), she felt it has not been “a science-led department” over the past five years and has not been able to “punch its weight across Whitehall”, adding that perhaps Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, has been “too quiet”, possibly at the behest of the government. The overall picture, she argued, is one of “policy fragmentation and incoherence”.
The attack lines, then, are clear. What positive interventions would Labour make, however? Eagle confirmed that the party’s flagship policy seems poised to be a resurrection of Food 2030, the strategy that was launched by the Brown government in January 2010 but which did not survive beyond the general election.
The original Food 2030 began with a stakeholder consultation in August 2009, and culminated in a comprehensive 80-page food strategy that cut across government departments, outlining what the food system should look like in 2030 and how to get there. It is precisely this sort of consultative, collaborative approach that Eagle believes is necessary to ensure that the problems of food security and the environment are addressed in an effective and complementary manner. She told the room that contrary to perception, we are not facing a binary choice between food and the environment: “We’ve seen food security slightly declining in the last few years, but the one thing that will make it decline an awful lot further is degradation of our natural environment at the same sort of level we’ve seen in the past few years.”
In fact, Eagle believes that there are many common interests among stakeholders, and these can form a nucleus from which to progress. “You’re never going to be able to reconcile those who think you shouldn’t use pesticides ever with those who think it is the only way of growing more food in the future. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t promote a proper scientific understanding of any particular policy.”
Unfortunately, despite being questioned as to what the specifics of a new Food 2030 might be, Eagle did not give much away, although she did suggest that formal, cross-departmental mechanisms could be used to tie departments in to it.
First to respond to Eagle’s comments was Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the interests of the UK plant science industry, who noted that, contrary to public perception, the Labour Party has often been better received among the farming community than the Conservatives. He said although the original Food 2030 had come rather late in that Labour administration, he was “very pleased” to hear Eagle talk about the need for an overarching strategy to smooth the tension between increasing agricultural productivity and protecting the environment.
“All too often we see policies which adversely affect productivity without seeming to have noted that there is an impact [on the environment],” he told the group. “There may be occasions where policies are required for safety or environmental protection and adversely affect productivity. We would like to see the next government take a much more formal approach to assessing the impact of its policies on productivity, essentially through a ‘food-proofing’ mechanism similar to the rural-proofing mechanism.”
He added that there are “deep concerns” in his industry that governments aren’t fostering the innovation required to in- crease agricultural productivity. With a nod towards the European Union’s recent decision to ban three neonicotinoids, he said: “We’re admittedly seeing this more in Europe than the UK, but there is an approach to risk management which is actually more about risk avoidance. Innovation is by its very nature a risk-taking activity and it is also a very important activity.”
Conversation about how to increase food productivity while protecting the environment inevitably brought genetically modified foods to the fore, with the Labour peer Lord Rooker launching a particularly impassioned argument in their favour. “I was really pleased to see what Maria said about being science-based, but you’ve got to be serious about being science-based. If we’ve got the freedom to use biotechnology, are we going to do it?”
However, a more moderate view was offered by Tiffin, who said scientists need to be encouraged to think more broadly about big systemic questions. “We have to get scientists to broaden their horizons and to understand what the trade-offs are in that system. GM isn’t simple. While there’s no evidence of any health-damaging effects, there is some evidence to say that it might have some ecosystem-damaging effects.”
The challenges faced by the farming community were also up for discussion. Andrew Clark, the director of policy at the National Farmers Union, noting how market volatility, particularly dairy prices, has had a particularly negative impact.
When asked about the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Clark said: “The CAP is absolutely critical to the fortunes of farmers,” he said. “So we need a government which has close engagement with Europe to shape what that looks like.”
This, of course, speaks to Labour policy, and Eagle was only too happy to make the case against an EU referendum. “You talk to anybody who has day-to-day dealings with the EU and they will tell you we have lost influence because we have moved away from being at the heart of the discussions.”
Having influence over our food production will be critical to the security of our supply. The farming and agri-science sector will be watching Labour’s manifesto pledges with interest to ensure the right policies are on offer.