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Farming

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

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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

Local farmer sentenced for animal welfare offences

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On 6 January 2021, at Aberystwyth Justice Centre the Magistrates passed sentence on Mr. Toby Holland of Maesgwyn, Blaenporth after he was found guilty in his absence of 10 charges relating to Animal Welfare and Animal By-Products offences.

Following the trial on 3 February 2020, a court warrant was issued for Mr. Toby Holland’ arrest in connection with these offences, and he was arrested by Police in December 2020.

The District Judge, in the trial held on 3 February 2020  heard that Animal Welfare Officers of the Public Protection team visited the farm on the 29 January 2019 and found a number of animal welfare issues. A sheep was found to be lying on its back unable to move and it was evident that it had been there for some time. Despite requesting that Mr. Holland seek veterinary assistance for the animal, a visit the following day had found that he failed to seek treatment for the animal and left it to die. He was found guilty for the unnecessary suffering of this sheep.

The Animal Welfare Officers found a barn containing 19 pigs. On seeing the officers the pigs were shrieking for food. The pigs were very thin and kept in an accumulation of muck with no dry lying area available. Within the pen were two dead pigs to which the live pigs had access. A post-mortem of one of the dead pigs found that the animal had likely died of starvation after finding no fat reserves remaining in the carcass.

The Veterinarian from the Animal and Plant Health Agency who attended the farm concluded that both the dead and live pigs had been suffering unnecessarily, and Mr. Holland was found guilty of these offences. He was also found guilty of failing to meet the needs of the animals, by failing to provide a dry lying area for the pigs.

The visit on 29 January 2019 also found a number of sheep carcasses strewn across the fields. It was clear that that they had been there for some time, and the live sheep had access to the same field. The District Judge found Mr. Holland guilty of failing to dispose of the carcasses in accordance with the requirements of a notice served under The Animal By-Products (Enforcement) (Wales) Regulations 2014.

A follow up visit on 30 May 2019 found the pigs were kept in a field where they had access to plastic bags, metal sheeting with sharp edges, and animal bones and skulls. These items could cause harm to pigs, and he was found guilty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 of not providing a suitable environment for the pigs. Tthere were sheep carcasses in the fields, that Mr. Holland failed to collect and dispose in accordance with legal requirements. He was found guilty of a further offence under the Animal By-Products Regulations.

He was sentenced to 18 weeks imprisonment in total for the offences, and he was issued a disqualification order for 2 years from keeping any animals. The Local Authority were awarded £750 costs.

Following sentencing, Cllr Gareth Lloyd, Cabinet member for Public Protection Services, said: “The majority of farmers in Ceredigion have excellent farming practices, that ensures the highest standards of animal welfare. Unfortunately we must deal with a minority who for whatever reason fail to meet basic legal standards. I wish to thank the partner agencies who assisted the authority in the investigation, and the officers for their hard work in handling a difficult case.”

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Farming

First week of life is key

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IMPROVED new-born lamb and calf survival rates not only result in increased income, but also improve welfare, reduce disease, and reduce environmental footprint, according to the results of major GB-wide research.

The Neonatal Survival Project, funded by AHDB, Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in the sheep and beef sector, was established to study the key factors which could drive further improvements in farm efficiency and maximise animal welfare.

Key findings show that the majority of lamb and calf losses occur in the first seven days after birth, with over 98 per cent of lamb and 90 per cent of calf losses occurring in this period.

The findings – and the recommendations for new practices to be adopted on farms – will be discussed at two major webinars. The first will be held on 5 January for vets followed by an event on 21 January for farmers. To register visit ahdb.org.uk/events.

A spokesperson on behalf of the three levy boards said: “A survey and interviews were used to understand motivations and barriers for change. While many farmers were aware of good practice industry advice on new-born survival, it was not consistently followed. This was particularly true with respect to colostrum management and genetic selection.

“Farmers were confident in their abilities to improve survival rates, but tended to underestimate new-born losses on their farm relative to national averages. A cultural stigma around losses limits farmers in discussing their experiences with peers, and in some cases, even with their vet.

“The research also discovered that losses can be highly variable between years; the importance of accurate record keeping also became apparent. While most suckler farmers have access to reliable records, a significant number of sheep farmers do not consistently record their data.”

With global pressures to reduce antibiotic use, this study found that a significant proportion of beef and sheep farmers were able to manage infectious diseases without purchasing critically important antibiotics. Preventive antibiotic use was reduced or withdrawn successfully on some farms, while oral antibiotic treatment at birth made no difference to lamb outcomes in an experimental study within this project.

The study also demonstrated that good long-term protein status in late pregnancy results in reduced lamb losses between scanning and 24 hours old.

Twin born lambs with a low serum antibody (IgG) concentration were more likely to have poorer growth rates. As shown by previous studies, poor energy balance in late pregnancy results in a low lamb IgG. This indicates that lambs born to ewes in negative energy balance are at increased risk of absorbing insufficient colostrum antibodies from the ewe.

The project is now complete, although work is ongoing to enable the implementation of a sustainable youngstock survival plan across Great Britain.

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Farming

Consumers ‘sleepwalking’ away from meat

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A LACK of inspiration, rather than a conscious reaction to trends such as veganism, was at the heart of the pre-Covid-19 reduction in meat, fish and poultry consumption, new AHDB research has suggested.
Before the pandemic struck, some 7.8 million (35%) households in Great Britain had unwittingly purchased less meat, fish and poultry products, according to AHDB analysis of Kantar data [52 w/e 26 January]. This figure accounted for 99% of the 1.3% volume drop in retail sales.

However, the twenty per cent of households which had at least one ‘conscious meat reducer’ accounted for just 1% of the losses, with the majority citing other reasons for reducing consumption.

The unconscious reducers were said by the report to mostly be of retirement age and living with fewer people. They were found to be much less likely to experiment with cooking or refer to themselves as a ‘foodie’, preferring more traditional dishes. They were also found to be unsatisfied with shopping for meat, with just 29% of the unconscious reducer group saying they enjoyed browsing meat aisles and only 31% find them to be inspiring.

The report urged the meat industry to focus its efforts on winning this group back as they offered a better route to boosting meat consumption than conscious reducers.

“How unconscious reducers think and feel about meat isn’t any different to those people who are actually increasing their meat consumption – they’re not turning away on purpose so there is a chance to re-engage them with the category,” explained one of the report’s authors, AHDB senior retail insight manager Kim Malley.

“The biggest opportunity is at the point of purchase. The key thing the report highlights is those people are wanting a better in-store experience. There could be simple messaging in-store to remind people why they enjoy meat, give them a bit of inspiration and remind them it’s versatile and convenient.”

Malley added the meat-free category is “excelling” in innovation and convenience through ready-meal and marinated NPD – products which the report said the meat industry had invested less heavily in.

She also praised the packaging of meat alternatives, which tended to be “very colourful and brought recipes and flavours to life” for shoppers, and urged the meat industry to do its own innovation in these areas in a bid to win back “distracted” consumers.

According to the report, distractions included negative media coverage of the meat industry and the prominence of plant-based ranges in stores.

But in positive news for the sector, it found the coronavirus pandemic had seen sales volumes of meat, fish and poultry rise 8% year-on-year in the 52 weeks to 6 September. Unconscious reducers were discovered to have accounted for 35% of this uplift.

Malley said meat “benefited massively” from the rise in in-home occasions this year and consumers thinking more about their food choices. “It has highlighted that it’s quite easy to re-engage people,” she said.

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