News
2nd Apr

2020

TFA Blog #5 – Is the Government’s New Focus on Food Security Just Lip Service?

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 27 March 2020.

 

Fifteen years ago, a jointly authored report by DEFRA and the Treasury entitled “A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy” sent shockwaves through the farming industry when it declared that “domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security”.  Many farmers took this as a sign that the Government was intent on turning its back on producing food from our own resources and making the country become more reliant upon imports.  Since then there has been a growing wave of interest in food provenance, standards, environmental impacts and supporting and developing local food supply chains.  In recognition of this, we now have a Government putting new primary legislation in place through the Agriculture Bill which will give Ministers a duty to have regard to the need to encourage the production of food in framing any new financial assistance schemes.  This is indeed a major generational change in Government policy – at least at a strategic level.

The question is, to what extent this overarching provision will really impact what happens on the ground.  In helping us look for an answer, the Government will point to a further provision within the same Bill which will place a duty upon the Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs to prepare and lay before Parliament a report containing an analysis of food security in the United Kingdom.  The report is to take into consideration global and domestic food availability, supply chain resilience, household expenditure on food, food safety and consumer confidence.  This is of course to be welcomed, however there has been much criticism of the fact that this requirement to report is only to occur once every five years.  In the debate on the Bill in the House of Commons shortly after its introduction there were cross-party voices calling for the government to increase the frequency of this to make it an annual requirement to demonstrate the importance of the issue.  Disappointing than that the Government used its majority on the Bill Committee to vote down an amendment which would have achieved just that.  It is also vital that rather than simply being a turgid list of statistics, we need the report to identify specific food security targets and any actions the government needs to prioritise if those targets are not being met.

Delving further into the question of the true impact of the identification of food security as a policy goal, one must question why it does not feature in the list of purposes for which the Secretary of State may give financial assistance within the Bill.  There are references to environmental improvement, public access, actions to mitigate or adapt to climate change, animal health and welfare, soil quality, avoiding water pollution and even raising productivity but nothing about enhancing the health and well-being of citizens through improvements in food security.  One would have thought that for a central policy goal, Ministers would have reserved at least the power to allow them to invest in food security raising capacity as a main criterion within the Bill.

It is widely acknowledged that domestic farm production standards regarding animal health and welfare and the environment are some of the highest of any country across the globe.  Again, there has been cross-party support in Parliament for those standards to be protected both through any trade deals that we strike and in our day-to-day trading relationships through our now full membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  The Government has been at best equivocal on this issue and at worst duplicitous.  We have heard many speeches from past and present members of the Cabinet and other Ministers using the rhetoric of support for our high standards but are apparent refusal to allow that commitment to be properly nailed into primary legislation.  We do not have a chance of supporting our high standards and we run the risk of offshoring activities and practices which are illegal at home unless we get clear commitments onto our statute book.  Again, the Government has chosen to vote down amendments moved within the Agriculture Bill Committee which had they been accepted, would have provided the necessary legislation.

The Agriculture Bill also recognises the need for farmers to be better protected in retail and foodservice supply chains – a necessary prerequisite to ensuring the sustainability of the contribution of domestic production to food security.  The Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) is already operating effectively in ensuring fair dealing between the major retailers and direct suppliers.  It is welcome to see recognition being given to ensure that fair dealing applies further upstream in the supply chain.  Yet the Government appears to be resisting the proper integration of these new provisions in an expanded role for the GCA, preferring instead to look at other organisations, including the Rural Payments Agency to govern these new legislative provisions.  If we are serious about embedding the concept of fair dealing throughout the entirety of food supply chains, there is no reason why this should not be given to the GCA to oversee.

Finally, there is the Government’s current and unhelpful stance on access to labour.  We all understand the desire of the Government to move to an Australian style points-based system, but this must take account of need rather than just a narrow view of skills.  Many sectors of the economy, including food, farming and food processing rely upon migrant labour due to the lack of interest from home born individuals in the labour market for the roles on offer despite good rates of pay and conditions.  Until we are at a position of being able to fulfil these roles from domestic sources, migrant labour will be an essential component of our business needs going forward.  Without access to this labour we run the risk of our food and farming sector diminishing which will do little for enhancing our food security.

 

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