There is no doubt that Brexit marks a turning point for UK agriculture. It is also clear that the overriding principles guiding future UK domestic agriculture policy decisions are environmental - but is government missing a much larger opportunity? After all, the clue is in the name of the recent consultation: “Health and Harmony”.
The agricultural sector knows it must look after the countryside. After all it is effectively the factory floor and farming cannot survive without a healthy environment. At the same time we must maintain production levels in order to feed the country. The risk with any new UK policy is that it ignores this need, assuming that we can buy our food (cheaply) from abroad. The government is making a number of assumptions, not least that the rest of the world will sell us food at a price the UK is willing to pay.
What happens when there is a shortage and food prices rise?
It also does not take into account that not all parts of the world have the same levels of environmental protection or food standards as the UK. We risk importing food, but exporting environmental damage.
What of the farmer? Forced into higher production cost models of farming by a new environmental domestic agricultural policy but, in all likelihood, with little or no increase in farm gate prices, farms will struggle to survive. There seems little doubt that the number of farm businesses will decline after Brexit, but if that decline is too great, we risk losing large numbers of people with the skills and knowledge to produce our food and protect the environment as the policy requires.
What of the nation’s health?
A major problem is the highly compartmentalised nature of government departments. There is very little evidence of cross-government policy working. The recent Defra consultation was focused on food production rather than consumption. There is a huge opportunity now to set agriculture on a profitable and environmentally sound course, while addressing issues around food consumption and public health. Obesity levels in the country are increasing. At the same time we throw away approximately a third of all the food that is produced. We put pressure on the environment and the economy through waste and poor public health.
Consumerism has been the driving force of western economies through the twentieth century. Although this has led to vast improvements in living standards that few would have dreamt possible 100 years ago, it has also led to a complacent attitude towards food and its worth. The public has been conditioned to expect ever more plentiful and cheaper food, indeed the average household spends around 11% of its income on food, compared to 33% in the 1950s.
Simple things like cutting portion sizes, and reducing food waste, will mean that there is more food available. Helping people to change their lifestyle will lead to social and health improvements. This will then feed through to improvements in the economy. However, this will only be achieved if people value food; where it comes from and how it is produced, and not just see it as another cheap, plentiful commodity that can be consumed or thrown away as they would a tired old sofa.
There is no doubt that getting policy right will be a difficult task for the government. New policies need to be joined up and connected; we do not live in a nice compartmentalised world where changes to one policy do not affect another. With our departure from the EU, Defra has a chance to re-mould our agriculture policy for the benefit of the environment and food production. The question remains – is it bold enough to seize the opportunity?