Once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape future farming policy

by Peter Crowe

Billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape future farming policy, Defra has launched a Command Paper (consultation paper) outlining its initial thinking on the future of a UK domestic agricultural policy. One phrase which struck me when Michael Gove was explaining his ideas was the assertion that the consultation was the beginning of a conversation, not a conclusion.  

Although environmental considerations dominate the document, there are strong references to the importance of food production. Agriculture employs nearly 500,000 people and is a key part of the food and drink industry contributing £112 billion to the economy. It is the largest of the UK’s manufacturing sectors, larger that the automotive and aerospace industries combined.

The general direction of travel is towards a more dynamic, self-reliant industry capable of competing internationally and supplying products of the highest standards to the domestic and export markets.

Although much of the discussion will centre on the design of a new environmental scheme, it is worth flagging the some of the ideas with direct relevant to fresh produce. The consultation argues the case for improving competitiveness; developing the next generation of food and farming technology; adopting the latest agronomic techniques; reducing the impact of pests and diseases; investing in skills and equipment and collaboration across the food chain.

One area which is much talked about but lacked serious joined up thinking in recent years is skills and labour. The consultation sets out the case for our agriculture, horticulture, forestry and food supply chain industries securing access to a sufficient and suitably-skilled supply of labour to drive growth and competitiveness. Defra is looking to promote a forward-thinking agricultural industry built on innovative practice and automation with the ability to attract the best talent.

Reading through the responses to the document, several editorials took the line that it was short on detail. My view is that this is a good thing. The last thing we need is a document which purports to have all the answers. We need a blank canvas on which to set out sound, well thought through ideas which have a realistic chance of getting the industry to where it needs to be - globally competitive, profitable and sustainable.