The long slow march of the new Agriculture Bill through Parliament continued last week, as Environment Secretary Michael Gove sought to reassure, indeed sooth, everyone’s concerns. Though Gove is a consummate schmoozer, mollifier and reassurer, satisfying the demands pressing on him from the many different sides of the debate may be beyond even his considerable talents.
There were some very valuable interventions - not least from Green MP Caroline Lucas, who made a number of excellent points. In particular, she pointed out that if we are really going to prevent Climate Change beyond the 1.5C limit the IPCC now says is needed, agriculture is going to have to change dramatically, as will our own eating habits. Lucas also noted the absence of public health as a key element of the new Agriculture Bill, as did others.
The debate was also, as expected, the first opportunity for the traditional Tory ‘backwoodsmen’ to make an appearance, alongside other characters who are famous, or infamous, for altogether different reasons. John Redwood, one of Sir John Major’s infamous ‘bastards’ who was among the original EU sceptics, made a bizarre intervention, claiming that:
“There has been a big decline in our self-sufficiency as food producers during the 46 years in which we have been in the common agricultural policy.”
A strange quirk of history
This is incorrect. Self-sufficiency peaked under Margaret Thatcher, due to Agriculture Minister Peter Walker’s enthusiasm for this ideological policy. By 1984, the UK was 95% self-sufficient in indigenous foods - a full 11 years after we joined the Common Agricultural Policy, (in 1973).
In a strange quirk of history, it was a Fascist who had the greatest influence over this particular policy aim. The British Union of Fascists believed that Britain should be entirely self-sufficient in food (known as autarchy) - they wanted it to be provided by a revival in domestic agriculture, and of course imports from the Empire and Dominions. As Empire crumbled, post-war, this policy evolved to argue for the UK to be self-sufficient in food grown from our own land.
The former BUF farm policy leader and Dorset farmer Bob Saunders (who was interned during the War), rose to a senior position in the National Farmers Union (NFU), where he was able to influence successive Governments and Whitehall civil servants in the Ministry of Agriculture. Saunders was particularly effective at influencing Walker, who took up this policy - despite it being completely at odds with the neo-liberal free-trade policies that became Thatcher Government’s hallmark.
After Walker left MAFF, successive free-traders abandoned autarchy, as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also started to move (albeit at a glacial pace) away from the single focus on food production. It’s worth noting that the CAP was created as a direct response to people dying of starvation in Europe after the Second World War (and also a backdoor way for Germany to pay reparations to France, via farm subsidies).
Last remaining sanctuary in Britain
Another bizarre intervention came from Huw Merriman who represents a chunk of the Sussex Weald. The Weald is now rightly famous as the last remaining sanctuary in Britain, for the survival of wildflower meadows. Merriman initially waved his wildlife credentials around, bragging of his chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary group on pollinators. He then proceeded to argue that the Agriculture Bill should pay his farmers to intensify production, on their poor soils, which are innately unproductive.
He railed against “investment bankers” buying up land and managing it for Nature rather than caning it for every last extra kilo of wheat. This is somewhat ironic considering that Merriman worked for the err investment bank Lehmann Brothers - you know, the one which caused the global financial crash in 2008.
Merriman was also confused about how much food the UK used to produce, claiming that we were 100% self-sufficient 50 years ago, but only 60% now. This is rubbish. Even at the height of that fascist-inspired self-sufficiency drive, the UK was only 78% self-sufficient. Does pollinator champion Merriman really want to pay farmers to plough up the few remaining wildflower meadows, just to produce a few more tonnes of low quality feed wheat? These are the policies of the 1970s.
Watching the debate, and reading through it afterwards, I was struck, once again, by how effective a lobbying organisation the National Farmers Union is. We were treated by the spectacle of both the Environment Secretary and his opposite number trying to out vie each other in quoting from the NFU President Minette Batters. It was a bit embarrassing really - as they were both using her quote “you can’t go green if you’re in the red.” Meaning the environment only gets a look in on farmland once farming is generating a decent profit. Or even, as previous Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom claimed “farming is the bedrock of the environment.”
This is, of course, arrant nonsense and barely disguised NFU propaganda. How did Nature survive for four billion years before farming came along 10,000 years ago, you might wonder. But it’s testament to the power of the NFU lobbying machine, that our political leaders unthinking use the quote, in a weird competition of who can be the NFU’s real bff.
Another gem, probably straight of the National Sheep Association’s playbook, came from Scottish Lib Dem MP (yes there is one) Jamie Stone. Stone suggested that Scottish sheep farmers should be given farm subsidies:
“It is self-evident to me that we cannot do much with the straths and glens in my constituency other than rear sheep. I want to push him on one other point. Tourism depends on seeing our straths and glens populated with livestock and on vibrant and successful farming. May I push him for his comments on the tourism aspect of agriculture?”
“He is absolutely right: Iconic landscapes from Caithness and Sutherland and Easter Ross through to the Lake District and, indeed, Exmoor and Dartmoor depend for their tourist appeal and for their pull on the human heart on the work of our farmers. It is inconceivable that those iconic landscapes could survive and flourish without the rural, economic and social network that sheep farming and other forms of farming provide. Absolutely, we do recognise that. It is a public good, and public access to our countryside is placed here.”
So, apparently, it is only sheep farming, which keeps the straths and glens of the Black Isle devoid of wildlife, which brings tourists there - and to other iconic landscapes - or ‘sheepscapes’ if you prefer. Some might say sheep-scraped. Successive Governments, and the EU, have supported a massive number of sheep on these hills. But it wasn’t always like that - as I explored in a blog last year.
Some have argued that hill farming communities should be regarded as a public good and paid to exist, but Farm Minister, George Eustice, rejected this argument and noted that the Upland Alliance, which represents Upland farmers, believes that these communities should be supported for the wide range of public goods they already provide, and others which they can provide in greater proportion - for example preventing downstream flooding, or carbon capture in bogs and woods.
This debate has provided a useful opportunity to see who is lobbying MPs most successfully, and who is not being heard. Health came through, clearly as an issue which needs to be included. The effectiveness of the NFU in lobbying for payments to produce more food, regardless of the environmental or social cost, should also act as a red flag for anyone interested in seeing more sustainable farming systems adopted here.