Perhaps I should essay a brief report here on things I heard and learned at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference that I attended a couple of weeks back. If I try to lay it all out in connected prose I’ll probably come grinding to a halt after about 5,000 words, so I thought I’d present it mostly in the form either of little news snippets or of one-sentence assertions…the latter being things I heard people say, or thoughts I had while listening at the conference. So I don’t necessarily agree with all of these assertions, some of which are mutually contradictory anyway. But that’s fine. Most of the time, I don’t even agree with myself. Anyway, here goes.
The biggest name at the conference was secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs (and arch-Brexiteer), Michael Gove. Quite a coup for the ORFC to get him not only to attend, but to agree to an unscripted Q&A session.
The audience listened in increasingly open-mouthed astonishment as Gove critiqued the inequities in the subsidy system that rewarded wealthy landowners, bemoaned the poor state of agricultural soils under the existing agricultural regimen, restated his opposition to neonic insecticides, critiqued the economic externalities involved in cheap food and emphasised the importance of supporting farmers for delivering environmental benefits.
There are numerous reasons to be sceptical about Gove’s agenda. Undoubtedly, the Tories are trying to re-position themselves as environmental champions again, probably because they’re aware that hardly anyone under the age of about 45 voted for them at the last election (remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky moment, before he switched to ‘green crap’). And Gove is probably trying to resurrect his career after the long knives of the Brexit campaign.
Still, maybe it’s still better to have a DEFRA secretary at least saying these kind of things than, as before, saying the opposite and/or steering well clear.
Unlike Owen Patterson, Gove doesn’t hail from the landed wealth wing of the Tory party. As a famous doubter of expert opinion and trasher of professional lobbying, DEFRA – much more than the Department of Education – could be just the place where his talents can be put to best use.
The debate in the Tory party at the moment resembles the 19th century debate over the Corn Laws between landed capital, manufacturing capital and financial capital.
The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.
Gove was equivocal on glyphosate. Expect chemical no-till farming to become the new green.
Everybody now seems to accept that the writing’s on the wall for large-scale landowners pocketing public money via farm subsidies – even the Country Landowners Association (sorry, now the Country Landowners and Business Association) who were in attendance. One positive outcome of Brexit, I think, that I predicted some time ago…
…but while this change will probably have some marginally beneficial consequences for social equity in the country at large, the money is unlikely to be redeployed in farming, but removed from it entirely. So probably tough times ahead for the already struggling medium-scale farm. Example: there are plenty of holdings that keep 2 breeding sows and plenty that keep 2,000. There are very few that keep 200. Is this a problem? I think so.
Farmers have four options: Get big, get niche, get out or get bankrupt.
Gove said there’d be support for upland stock farmers. Good news for James Rebanks. Bad news for George Monbiot. Relevant reading: another brilliant article from the pen of Simon Fairlie, ‘Return of the shepherd’ The Land, Issue 22.
The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).
No it doesn’t (CLA)
When Britain quits the EU, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles written into EU law won’t be transferred to British law.
When Britain quits the EU, there will be a regulatory gap, both in terms of legislation and regulatory staff.
Brexit is a great opportunity for Britain to set more appropriate local standards for food and farming.
Any post-EU trade deals Britain makes after a hard Brexit will potentially shatter local standards for food and farming, particularly a trade deal with the USA.
But any post-EU trade deals will have to be ratified by parliament, so if our elected representatives don’t like them they can throw them out.
If only it was as simple as that.
US farm animals are dosed with twice as much antibiotics as British ones.
Economic protectionism is a good idea, but only within a wider consociation of essentially amicable states. Otherwise the risk is the kind of trade-war bellicosity of the 1930s, potentially lurching into actual war. But presently there’s no global mechanism to achieve local protectionism and global consociation.
A system of cheap food depends on a system of cheap labour.
Britain currently imports a large part of its agricultural workforce from Eastern Europe, partly because of economic demand for labour from the weaker east European economies, but also because East European workers come with a range of agricultural skills that are in short supply in Britain, mostly through the running down of a proper framework for agricultural education.
In the context of Brexit, the supply of East European workers is dwindling.
Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.
Allotment gardens available for student use at one agricultural college were derelict.
When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.
Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.
Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.
Nobody wants to work on farms any more.
Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.
Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.
We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.
The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.
New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?
Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.
Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.
But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.
There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.
The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.
Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.
Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.
We need shorter food chains.
France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?
The number of farm holdings in the UK is reducing at a rate of about 2% per annum.
There is a precipitous decline in biodiversity and wild species numbers in Europe – and it’s largely due to farming practices.
The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.
We tend to think of tax as a source of government revenue or for incentivising behaviours. We should also think of it as a means for preventing patrimonial, anti-democratic wealth accumulation.
Landowners capture the majority of the uplift value associated with turning land over to residential property development.
No they don’t.
Yes they do.
Traditional landed estates should be preserved because they’re a good way of handing down agricultural land through the generations.
No they’re not.
It took a war to reform Britain’s antiquated systems of property ownership and social security.
Brexit is like a war. But hopefully with fewer casualties.
Somebody at the conference I’d not met before had read my paper on perennial grains. They even agreed with it, and felt the Land Institute’s response missed the point. Validation! By Jove, it was all worthwhile…
A spade is a spade is a spade, but a perennial is not a perennial is not a perennial. Seeds are seeds. Fruits are fruits.
No they’re not.
Yes they are.
Teaser photo credit: By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Museum of OxfordUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27388088