Saturday, 20 August 2016

Free market dogma cannot take the place of policy

It would be fair to conclude that when it comes to agriculture the Tory right do not have a solitary clue what they're talking about. What they want to do is pull out of the single market and abolish farm subsidies. The free market will prevail we are told. This is adolescent claptrap.

If we open up agriculture to the full force of globalisation then the result is that we have no agriculture at all. We've done the same with shipbuilding and coal mining and just about everything else and the result is that we have none of it. So it comes down to whether we really want an agriculture sector.

The bottom line is that Britain cannot compete when it comes to livestock. We do not produce sufficient volumes, we insist on welfare and disease control rules and because we do not produce on an industrial scale we can't simply shoot animals because they are sick. British farmers have vets bills. Argentinian farmers do not. They shoot sick animals because they can afford to on that scale.

Similarly our capacity for arable crops is puny when compared even with France. Northern France has vast tracts of uninterrupted fields which lend themselves to industrial farming. Not so for Somerset or East Yorkshire. This incidentally is why a common agricultural policy does not work. The landscapes are too diverse.

So if we are saying we are giving up on agriculture then we must also give up on a managed landscape which has a number of spin off activities for leisure and tourism, wildlife and habitats. If we abandon agriculture we depopulate the countryside and all land is then turned over to industrial or residential use. And this is without even opening up the debate about food security.

Whether they know it or not, the Tory right are pretty much advocating the end of British agriculture for no real gain. So we have to answer the basic question of whether we ant agriculture at all. If we do, then yes we have to subsidise it, and on balance there is every reason to believe it is worth the investment.

In other countries the primary purpose of farming is the production of food. What else would it be? But in the UK, a services and knowledge based economy, agriculture is central to a number of pursuits. Britain is a major exporter of know-how be it from pesticides and agricultural chemicals, veterinary science, GM crops, irrigations systems, farming machinery, specialist agricultural engineering and any number of smaller activities that contribute to UK exports. If anything UK agriculture is one of the world's food laboratories and expertise in agriculture will be key to our foreign and trade policy.

And as we have discussed, diversity is part of the UK's assets. As much as it matters for tourism, it is that same diversity that gives us such a breadth of expertise. And since there is such a diversity and many distinct landscapes, as much as we should abandon any continent wide policy on agriculture, there is every advantage to devolving agriculture to the regions, if not councils. After all, farming on the Somerset Levels has little in common with Scottish crofters and Cumbrian hill farmers. And though there are similarities between South Gloucestershire and North Somerset the landscapes are also distinct. Why should there not be farming policies developed for distinctive regions encompassing the wider demands of rural policy?

And as much as I see an advantage in having locally derived policy I see it as a worthwhile endeavour to have agriculture departments in every regional authority so that we replicate the knowledge we have across the country. The UK could well be a lead innovator if every region formulates policy according to their own distinct needs.

What we have to do post-Brexit is to look at agriculture in a different way and be thinking in terms of broader rural policy where agriculture is the loss leader for a more productive sector. As we move away from the one size fits all policy of the CAP we need to explore how the UK can become the agricultural academy of the world with tie-ins to universities. We could even encourage universities to run their own farms.

And if there is one thing that goes hand in hand with food production it is paperwork and accountancy. This all forms an important part of the supply chain where again we can export our expertise. It's one thing to produce food, but it's a whole other discipline in terms of conformity and regulatory compliance. Even with the best deregulation in the world, supply chain systems will always need to be regulated and we will always need specialists.

Farming is pivotal to the UK economy and we cannot causally dispose of it. It's easily dismantled, but not so easily rebuilt. We have to ensure that farming is protected and that we appreciate the role it has in keeping Britain at the forefront of innovation. If then Tory radicals come forth with ideas as to how to make farming competitive without destroying all that rests on it then we should welcome their ideas - but ideological wreckers we can do without. You may not like farm subsidies but we keep them because they represent the least worst option. Free market dogma cannot take the place of well thought out policy.

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