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Farming

Gove’s Oxford speech sparks debate on farming’s future

Jon Coles

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We must develop coherent food policy: Michael Gove

DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove used a keynote speech to the Oxford Farming Conference to say that if UK agriculture does not embrace change we will be left behind, and Brexit offers the opportunity to shape that change and how we meet the challenges ahead.

SUBSIDIES CONTINUE TO 2024

Mr Gove guaranteed farmers the same level of subsidy until 2024, but said that CAP was created for a post-war world which is no longer relevant.

He said: “Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. Indeed, perversely, it rewards farmers for sticking to methods of production that are resource-inefficient.”

In his paper, Farming for the Next Generation, as well as moving away from subsidies, Mr Gove’s proposals for future agricultural policy are based on incentivising innovation and giving the farmers the tools they need to progress, maintaining the UK’s reputation for quality food and high welfare, and building on natural capital to sustain the countryside for the future. He is also aware of the Government’s responsibility to public health.

Mr Gove told his audience: “I want to ensure we develop a coherent policy on food – integrating the needs of agriculture businesses, other enterprises, consumers, public health and the environment.

“I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.

“I want to give farmers and land managers time and the tools to adapt to the future, so we avoid a precipitate cliff edge but also prepare properly for the changes which are coming.

“And I want to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for our countryside.”

Addressing both the pace of demographic change and the challenges posed by Brexit, Mr Gove said: “We can’t stop change coming, we simply leave ourselves less equipped to deal with the change. There is a tremendous opportunity for productivity in our farms. We have some of the best performing farms in the world and there is no reason why our farmers cannot lead the way in achieving better levels of productivity throughout adoption of best practice and new technologies.”

Touching on the vexed issue of migrant labour’s importance to farming, Mr Gove suggested that seasonal labour would still be easily available and looked to a future where labour-intensive farming was replaced by as yet undefined new technology.

The government now proposes to keep similar payments to the BPS available until 2024. The current EU payments may well end at the end of 2020 to tie in with the EU budget, and Mr Gove suggested that area-based support payments would be phased out over a longer period after that, but “we won’t perpetuate that forever”.

‘PERVERSE’ SUBSIDY SYSTEM BENEFITS THE WEALTHY

Responding to Michael Gove’s speech, Professor Ian Bateman, Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP), at the University of Exeter, said: “Michael Gove’s reaffirmation that the public money supporting farm subsidies should be spent on delivering public goods is to be welcomed; if this is carried through then he will deserve to be congratulated on breaking more than four decades of failure in agricultural policy. But it is disappointing to see that the system of paying most subsidies on a per acre basis is going to carry on for several years.

“At present 75% of public subsidies go to just 25% of farms; the largest farms in the country. This rewards multi-millionaire estate owners while other farmers remain in poverty. I have no problem with large farms getting payments if they produce high levels of public goods; but to get these payments just because they are large is perverse. It’s good to hear that this scheme may be capped, but it needs to end.”

INCENTIVES SHOULD TARGET ANIMAL WELFARE

RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said: “Paying farmers to achieve high animal welfare standards is a no-brainer. Farm subsidies targeted at animal welfare will be good for new trade deals, good for consumers and good for the animals.

“If post-Brexit farm support schemes include ring-fenced incentives for farmers to improve animal welfare, the government’s laudable ambitions for the UK to produce the highest quality food will be met. This, coupled with Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s newly announced comprehensive food labelling system which includes, amongst other things, indicators on animal welfare standards, would be the icing on the cake.

“As the UK leaves the EU and nationalises the farming support system this presents us with a once-in-a-generation chance to radically transform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) into a British policy for humane animal and sustainable land management.

“If we get it right now, the UK’s food quality can become the world’s gold standard – and that can only happen with the highest possible animal welfare.”

The RSPCA also welcomed Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s commitment to a much more comprehensive food labelling system that measures how a farmer or food producer performs against a number of indicators, including animal welfare.

ENVIRONMENTAL INCENTIVES WELCOMED

Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association said: “We warmly welcome the move towards an agricultural policy that prioritises environmental protection and the new emphasis on the vital links between food, farming and public health. The clear timetable provides much-needed certainty for farmers, whilst the commitments on public procurement and better labelling are important for food producers and consumers alike. We now need to see more detail on how farmers will be enabled and encouraged to shift to higher animal welfare systems, move away from synthetic pesticides, restore degraded soils and improve water quality.

“We don’t see these proposals as leading to a reduction in UK food production – but rather about a fundamental shift in how we produce food so that farming systems are truly sustainable. In many areas, we want to see more domestic production to meet demand, especially fruit and vegetables and organic.

“The greatest test of this transition is whether the UK’s food and farming system measures up to the monumental challenges of public health, which was highlighted in the speech, and climate change, which received just two mentions. The Government must also make an ambitious and unambiguous commitment to organic and other agro-ecological approaches which are proven to deliver on animal welfare, biodiversity, soil health and climate change – both during the transition and after 2024.”

CAP BAD FOR THE COUNTRYSIDE

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner said: “Michael Gove’s speech confirmed the direction of travel for British agricultural policy post-Brexit.

“The move away from area based payments to rewards for delivering environmental and public goods is far from the revolution some have hailed, but it will be significantly accelerated by a departure from the Common Agricultural Policy.”

Mr Bonner continued: “Interestingly, just about the only thing that all sides of the Brexit argument, from the Liberal Democrats to Farming minister and Brexiteer George Eustice, seem to agree on is that CAP has been bad for the countryside, consumers and farmers. Attempts to reform the CAP have been achingly slow as the EU convoy moves only at the speed of the slowest. Brexit creates an opportunity for the UK to create our own farming policy for the first time in more than 40 years and move ahead of the pack.”

However, Tim Bonner sounded a cautionary note: “That is the good news, but there are also valid reasons for concern. There remains an inherent contradiction between agricultural productivity and protecting the environment which has not yet been addressed in detail by the Government and which goes to the heart of the big long-term question: how much will the public be willing to continue to pay for the countryside that farmers maintain?

“Under the CAP the question of farm support has been decided in Brussels and the combined weight of the European farming lobby has had a significant influence. Post Brexit levels of farm support will become a direct domestic political issue for the first time for a generation. The farm support budget will have to compete with the NHS, Defence, Education and all other areas of Government expenditure in future spending rounds. In order to maintain levels of support farmers will have to persuade the public, and through them politicians of all parties, that the public goods they provide continues to justify the money they receive from the taxpayer. This will be the greatest challenge for UK farming outside the EU.”

‘A TRIUMPH OF HOPE OVER PRACTICALITY’

TFA Chief Executive George Dunn said “We are used to having our hopes dashed of hearing a meaty Oxford Farming Conference speech from incumbents as DEFRA Secretaries of State but not this time. Like or loathe what we heard, we received a fairly firm view of future Government policy, the like of which we have not seen since Hillary Benn’s speech in 2010 in which he set out his 20 year plan to boost domestic food production. That plan fell by the wayside when Labour lost the 2010 General Election later that year and we will have to wait to see if the Gove plan survives the political choppy waters of our time.

“Disappointingly, there was a triumph of hope over practicality in the extent to which Mr Gove seems to be relying upon technological change to provide the swift answers we need to address labour shortages and the urgent need to increase farm productivity. Also on the negative side, there was nothing said specifically about the tenanted sector of agriculture, and there also continues to be too much reliance on the market being the means by which we sort out our food safety and food standards issues in a free trading environment.” said Mr Dunn.

“On the plus side there was a clear understanding of the need for a sufficient period of transition to a new policy framework. A commitment for the Government to act as a strong champion of British produce at home and abroad. A pledge to deal with market failure in the food chain and a promise that no one entering into an agri-environment scheme today will be disadvantaged when new schemes are developed for the post Brexit era,” Mr Dunn concluded.

FUW WANTS ‘MEAT ON BONES’

The Farmers’ Union of Wales described the as welcome, but says Welsh farmers remain in the dark over many important issues.

FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “We very much welcome Mr Gove’s apparent commitment to agricultural funding until 2024, and the general thrust of his speech, which described a prosperous and forward looking post-Brexit industry which is rewarded for delivering the very best in terms of food, the environment and social contributions to society.

“However, the nuts and bolts of turning such a vision into reality are where the obstacles will lie, and we look forward to seeing more meat on the bones in the long-awaited DEFRA white paper, due in the spring.”

Mr Roberts said many Welsh farmers would also be concerned that nothing was said about progress on talks between devolved regions on how devolved powers and funding might operate once we leave the legal framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

“Wales currently has devolved powers over agricultural and rural development spending and policy, but this is within the limits laid down in the CAP framework.

“The FUW fully supports such devolved powers continuing. But, we now need to ensure that devolved powers are fully respected by all 4 nations and that we don’t see the creation of support mechanisms that benefit one nation over another. Therefore we need to develop a UK framework which ensures equivalence between producers in the four nations, which respects devolved powers and allows a degree of flexibility.”

While acknowledging that this was a difficult balance to strike, especially given political differences between devolved regions, Mr Roberts said progress was necessary.

“We currently have such a system, so it is not difficult to see how a framework could be developed which strikes a sensible balance between respecting devolved powers and avoiding the dangers of a free-for-all.”

Mr Roberts said reaching sensible agreement on spending frameworks should be a priority, in order to avoid inappropriate and unfair divergence between spending areas in devolved nations.

He also emphasised the need for Mr Gove’s vision for the future of UK agriculture to be underpinned by an acceptable post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

“I therefore welcome his fellow speaker’s, Professor De Castro’s, confirmation of the EU’s desire to ensure tariff-free trade between the UK and EU post-Brexit,” he added.

Mr Roberts also welcomed USA Under-Secretary McKinney’s comments regarding the desire to increase agricultural trade between the UK and US, but warned that care needed to be taken to ensure any new arrangements did not compromise existing markets.

“Standards in the US are very different to those in established UK and EU markets, and we need to ensure new arrangements do not compromise or undermine established markets.”

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Farming

Economic value of red meat sector rises

Thomas Sinclair

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HE VALUE of the iconic beef, lamb and pork sectors to the Welsh economy rose in 2020, as consumers turned to local, sustainable, quality food during the COVID pandemic, according to analysis by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC).New figures from the Welsh Government ‘Aggregate Agricultural Output and Income’ report show that the total value of agricultural output in Wales for 2020 is projected to stand at £1.7billion – a 6.2% (or £99 million) increase on the provisional figure for 2019.


Cattle and sheep account for 44% of this total at £750million; the highest proportion recorded since 2016. The agricultural output value for Wales’s pig sector also increased (by 34.3% or £2 million) to a value of £8 million.
The figures reflect the strength of the livestock sector in Wales and sit in contrast to Total Income From Farming (TIFF) figures for the UK as a whole newly released by Defra. Although the TIFF figures are a different form of measuring farm production, the UK data concurs that the livestock sector has had a strong year, but in other parts of Britain, this was more than offset by poor harvests in the arable sector.


Demand for beef and lamb have been strong in the domestic retail market since the immediate aftermath of the first COVID lockdown in spring 2020. After initial market volatility, marketing campaigns by HCC and other bodies encouraged consumers to recreate restaurant meals at home.


Over the past 12 months, domestic retail sales of lamb and beef have trended consistently higher, with spending on lamb 20% higher than the previous year. Sales at independent high street butchers are also strong.
Research shows many demographic groups, including families with children, buying more beef and lamb than previously, and turning to quality home-grown produce.


HCC Data Analyst Glesni Phillips said, “The strong demand for red meat from the domestic consumer has helped drive market prices for beef and lamb at Welsh livestock markets in the second half of 2020 and into the early months of 2021.


“It’s no surprise, therefore, to see that the overall value of the industry is projected to have grown. We have seen inflation in the costs on farmers, which offset some of the gains from improved market price; however, it’s heartening to see consumers’ support for quality Welsh produce.“Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef remain key drivers of our rural economy, and given their excellent brand reputation, they act as flagship products for the growing Welsh food and drink sector.”Further analysis of the aggregate output and income figures for Welsh farms are available in HCC’s latest monthly market bulletin.

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Farming

Ian Rickman: 2021 is a critical year for Wales’ farming future

Thomas Sinclair

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THE INCREASINGLY negative narrative around livestock farming and its portrayed impact on the environment and climate change has led to farmers in Wales standing up to tell their stories and highlight the positive impact livestock farming has.


Through the Farmers’ Union of Wales’ campaign ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’, farmers are addressing misleading claims by various groups about the role livestock farming plays in relation to climate change and the environment.  Launching the campaign, FUW Deputy President Ian Rickman said: “The FUW has consistently recognised the threat represented by climate change and the need to take action. This is clear from a cursory look at our manifestos and policy documents published over the past twenty years.

“We know that farming is already responsible for a critical carbon resource in soils, woodland and semi-natural habitats and I’m pleased to launch the FUW’s environment campaign – ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’ from my home farm here in Carmarthenshire today. As farmers are the most trusted link in the supply chain, they are best placed to communicate their stories, helping to address consumer concerns and influencing political agendas. Members can also look forward to a variety of webinars over the coming months, which will focus on the different challenges ahead for the industry and how to overcome them.


“There is no question in our mind that we need to counteract the continuation by the anti-farming lobby of their campaign to vilify and belittle domestic food producers.  These attacks are corrosive and grossly misleading, negatively influencing consumer perception of the industry and influencing political agendas on a global scale.”


Mr Rickman added that 2021 is an important year for these types of conversations.


“Knocking on our door are the United Nations Food Systems Summit and COP26. The FUW has been engaging with these conversations at an international level and shares some concerns with other industries across the globe about the wider narrative and ambitions set out in inconspicuous looking documents. Plans, we and the general public don’t support.  Telling the positive story of the guardians of our Welsh land is now more important than ever,” he said.


Starting in the first week of June, the campaign introduces four farmers all of whom tell the story of how they are addressing environmental and climate change needs in their unique ways: Carmarthenshire organic sheep farmer Phil Jones, the Roberts family from Meirionnydd, Ceredigion dairy farmers Lyn and Lowri Thomas and FUW President Glyn Roberts who farms with his daughter Beca at Dylasau Uchaf in Snowdonia.


“The campaign will further highlight that Welsh farmers are rising to the challenge of improving soil health and increasing organic matter in soils, improvements which represent further opportunities for sequestering more carbon. These improvements, the campaign will highlight, are achieved through specific livestock grazing patterns and rest periods. The campaign is also clear that the correct options, guidance and rewards are required to encourage more farmers to adopt such systems,” said Mr Rickman.


Soil, the campaign will stress, is a long term investment and at present, around 410 million tonnes of carbon is stored in Welsh soils and 75,700 hectares of Wales’ woodland (25%) is on farmland, representing an important and growing carbon sink.


“As acknowledged in Natural Resources Wales’ State of Natural Resources Report, using land for food production is an essential part of natural resource use and management.  Whilst we acknowledge that  agricultural intensification has undeniably had negative impacts on some species and ecosystems, there is overwhelming evidence that other factors, including reductions in agricultural activity and afforestation, have also had severe negative impacts,” he added.

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Farming

Excellent Easter for lamb sales

Jon Coles

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Lamb proved a popular choice for consumers over Easter with retail sales soaring above the last two years. This demand has been reflected at livestock markets where farmgate prices are still standing strong.

At a time when lamb is always a firm favourite, this year people of all ages were both buying and spending more as a result of a renewed interest in sourcing quality, local produce and cooking at home.

In the 12 weeks to 18 April 2021, the total volume purchased was up 14.8% on the year, and 6.0% higher than in 2019. Consumer spend on lamb reached £190.0 million, which was 18.7% more than in 2020 and 14.6% higher than the same period in 2019.  

Lamb leg roasting joints were the most sought-after cuts despite the fact that Covid-19 restrictions on large gatherings remained, followed by chops and mince.

Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales’ (HCC) Data Analyst, Glesni Phillips said: “Lamb performed exceptionally well over the Easter period this year. It saw a 10.2% increase in the number of buyers engaging with the product and a rise of 3.3% in the frequency of which lamb was bought.

“The average price of lamb was also higher, but this obviously did not deter new buyers. The figures show that there are new buyers in all age categories, but this is especially true for shoppers aged under 45 years and those with children.

“The pandemic has led to more consumers cooking at home, giving many the opportunity to realise and enjoy the exceptional qualities and versatility of Welsh Lamb, and at the same time, support the local economy.”

Butchers also benefitted from the popularity of lamb in the run-up to Easter with total spend increasing by 16.1% on the year. The volume sold also increased, by 12.6%.

Glesni Phillips added: “As we approach the end of Spring, the consumer demand for lamb is continuing. This can be seen in the liveweight lamb prices which remain strong when compared to historical averages, with the average SQQ in Wales standing at 329.7p/kg in Wales for the week ending 15 May 2021.

“New season lambs are now entering the market – they accounted for over 70% of lambs at auction in Wales during the latest week – but the supply is still relatively tight. HCC is looking forward to working with retailers over the coming months on new activity, which will include in-store marketing, press and targeted digital communication to maintain this growth in sales. Butchers, who demonstrated their key role in the community during the pandemic, will also be offered training on a number of key skills to boost their sales even further.”

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