2018-11-09 Agriculture

This week the Secretary of State for Health called for prevention rather than cure as the solution to the funding crisis in the National Health Service. This is nothing new. But if we really want to improve people’s health we have got to look at other factors apart from medicine.

One of those factors is the food we eat. We have a growing obesity crisis, and record numbers with Type 2 Diabetes. Any government which has the best interests of its citizens at heart will encourage and enable people to eat more healthily.  And we also need a programme to support farmers to grow the healthy food we need.

When we leave the European Union we are going to have to decide how best to support agriculture in this country.  It is not only EU countries that pay their farmers – the USA has a well-developed subsidy scheme for its own agriculture, and so do most other developed nations. We had our own scheme under the 1947 Agriculture Act. But when we joined the European Common Market we signed up to far more extensive farming subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

To start with the CAP was focused on rewarding farmers for producing quantities of food rather than on its quality.  We ended up with wine lakes, butter mountains, and huge stocks of French Golden Delicious apples.  So the CAP was reformed, and now, apart from some specific environmental support schemes, most CAP money goes to landowners just for owning farmland.

The government published its new Agriculture Bill last month.  This is intended to forge a new relationship between the state and farmers after we have left the CAP. It is intended to pay farmers for the creation of “public goods” rather than just for owning land, and everyone can applaud that. But there are two huge flaws in the Bill.

Firstly, although there are some indications of what “public goods” might be – protecting the environment, taking care of farm animals, improving our countryside – the Bill is pretty vague, and the details of the regulations which determine what payments will be made to whom are left largely to the discretion of Michael Gove. This gives him far too much power, and makes for bad law.  The reason we argue Bills through Parliament before they become Acts is so that the details can be discussed, not just by MPs and Lords, but also through the submissions from groups like the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Secondly, while the Bill mentions the environment and national heritage, it doesn’t mention food. Call me picky, but I thought food was what agriculture was meant to be about.

I want us to have the best possible protections for our countryside, minimum pollution of our air and water, completely safe working practices and food produced to the highest standards of purity, safety and healthiness. But all of this will be completely pointless if we end up hardly producing any food at all, and importing most of our food from other countries with far less stringent regulations – we will just be exporting our environmental damage to them.

Already, we produce just 58% of our own vegetables, and there is no financial support for them.  And yet, our NHS is trying to encourage people to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.  I spoke up in the House of Commons for broad beans – healthy, delicious, and produced in England – but how often do you see them for sale? It’s often easier to find mung beans in a supermarket than broad beans.

The Agriculture Bill is currently facing amendments to try to make it better, based on what the NFU and other experts have submitted.  The government’s MPs then vote those amendments down in public, but my expectation is that behind the scenes the government will actually accept many of the good points being made, and change the Bill for the better before it becomes law.

I want to see this Bill protect our countryside, the welfare of our farm animals, the safety of agricultural workers, the quality of our soil, our air and our water.  I want it to encourage farmers to make our countryside more wildlife-friendly, to enable more people to enjoy nature and to contribute to sustainable tourism.  But above all, the Bill must support farmers to produce the high quality, environmentally sustainable healthy food we all need.  We all need to take our food more seriously, and we need to take farming more seriously too.