The Green Transformation: Labour gets in a muddle about food security

Those who take even a passing interest in politics will know that the party conference season is upon us. The Lib Dems conference passed without more than a murmur and an ‘exotic spresm.’  And last week saw a surprisingly united Labour party in ebullient mood; this despite some confusion over whether they will support a second Brexit referendum, which includes the option to vote to remain in the EU after all.

While that particular political hot potato has been kicked down the road (or into the long grass) for a bit longer, there was a definite shift in mood and this will strengthen calls for a People’s Vote – calls that will only get louder once the Prime Minister fails to win her own vote on the so-called Chequers deal.

But I was more interested in what Labour had to say about the Environment, Food and Farming. As I mentioned before, there have been some quite alarming noises coming from that party’s environment and farming team, to whit they would be supporting some form of direct payments to farmers to produce food. In response to that column, Shadow Farming Minister. David Drew, responded on Twitter:

“Beware the #Greenwash. CAP’s major fault was that subsidies went to some who didn’t need it. But Gove’s Bill is a dour ’people-less’ vision. He is eerily silent on ability of small and specialised farmers, their families and rural communities to develop incomes and their future.”

Dr Drew later deleted the tweet, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Fast forward to the Labour conference, where a significant new report was launched, laying out how Labour in Government would tackle the serious environmental challenges facing the UK and the world. The Green Transformation is short, punchy and worth reading.

Labour’s new ‘The Green Transformation’ report has some worthy aims for wildlife, but it seems curiously reticent about radical proposals for agricultural change

It starts very strongly:

“The Environment is the bedrock of our economy, our security and our wellbeing. It is not something separate from ourselves; it is the food we eat and the place we live.”

This is a great starting point.  And it goes on in similar fashion; for example, the big policy statement on climate action – a target of net zero emissions by 2050. It has some worthy aims for wildlife, but it seems curiously reticent about radical proposals for agricultural change. The report highlights the need to tackle air pollution, while failing to mention the effect of intensive agriculture  (almost all ammonia pollution comes from livestock farming). It does note the parlous state of the UK’s freshwaters, but omits to recognise the primary reason for that state is the impact of intensive farming.

And while Labour quotes the State of Nature report figures showing that our species and habitats are disappearing primarily because of intensive farming practices, it offers no concrete proposals for addressing this.

What it does say is that Labour will:

“Reconfigure funds for farming and fishing to support sustainable practices, smaller traders, local economies and community benefits”

And

“Embed and enhance in policy the responsibility for farmers to conserve, enhance and create safe habitats for birds, insects and other wild animals, and encourage the growth of wildflowers.”

This is vague and wishy-washy – but I’m afraid all too familiar to old blokes like me who, over the decades, have seen similar statements of “motherhood and apple pie” about wildlife, emanating from Ministers and Shadow Ministers of all political parties.

To put this in context, look no further than the National Farmers Union (NFU), gloating over the success of its fringe event on food and farming at the Labour conference. For Shadow Environment Secretary, Sue Hayman, speaking at that event literally quoted the NFU’s lines: “We know that for farmers to be sustainable environmentally, they must be sustainable economically, as Minette has said – ‘farmers cannot be green if they are in the red.”

Hayman is expressing exactly the same sentiments as arch-Brexiteer, Andrea Leadsom,  did when she was Defra Secretary of State. “Farming is.. a bedrock of our economy and environment” she said.

“Farming is vital to Britain. Not only because of the role our farmers play in environmental stewardship, but because it is the bedrock of the food and drinks industry which is our largest remaining manufacturing sector.” Did Leadsom say that? No, it was Sue Hayman, using curiously similar wording.

But The Green Transformation stated the Environment was the bedrock of the economy.

Confused? So am I.

Even more confusing than that, Labour is now talking about Food Security. The Agriculture Bill “must deliver on food security as well as on environmental outcomes”, says Hayman. What does Food Security mean in this context? For David Drew it means increasing domestic food production. Indeed Hayman, speaking at that NFU fringe event, confirmed Labour would retain making payments to farmers to produce food. This is dangerous territory – remember those milk mountains and beef lakes – the overproduction of food was driven by subsidies linked to food production, at devastating cost to the environment. On Farming Today, Hayman said Labour would tackle volatility, and maintain security in our food supply, as if we were going to war and being threatened with a U-boat blockade. She went on to suggest Labour would push for farm payments for productivity. The Agriculture Bill also talks of payments for productivity, linking this nebulous term to increased resource efficiency and improving food quality, but not increasing production.

And what of food security? Food Security can mean many different things to different people.

For the World Food Programme, Food Security encompasses availability of food, access to food, food having a “positive nutritional impact” on people. As RSPB’s Tom Lancaster points out, the UK has the third highest food security in the world. But there is a big problem with access to nutritional food in the UK, not because of a lack of food, but because many people are on very low incomes, and much of their income is taken on unaffordable housing.

There is no shortage of food in the UK. But there are problems with nutrition and poor diet, leading to the obesity epidemic, diabetes and other health problems. So we really need more explanation from Labour as to what they mean by Food Security. There is no shortage of food in the UK because our farmers are very good at growing it, but many struggle to make a living. And this is because most of the value in the food they produce is extracted by the big four supermarkets and the most successful food processors, as I explained in the People’s Manifesto for Nature.

A crash-out no deal Brexit could threaten food imports, as illustrated by Defra appointing a Minister of Food Rationing last week. It remains to be seen whether we will be implored to Dig for Victory, or set up a Pig Club.

Labour has got itself into a bit of a pickle over agriculture and food policy. It’s good news that it is working on a food policy, where it can untangle some of these muddles. I asked Vicki Hird, food campaigner at Sustain, for her view:

“It is clear the Labour Party is concerned about the whole food system from the viability of sustainable farm and rural businesses to the protection of the Environment and securing healthy safe food supplies. They need to join up these complex demands in a strong response to the draft Agriculture Bill looking for the long term finance needed, duties not just powers to act and an obligation to deliver on existing environmental and social goals. “

Somehow I suspect agriculture and the environment will be a very minor sideshow in the imminent bun-fight, otherwise known as the Conservative Party conference. Whatever happens there though, there are big changes coming for agriculture, food and the environment. You can play your part by lobbying your MP when the time comes for votes on the Agriculture Bill. More on that in a few weeks’ time.

this is an updated version of a piece which first appeared on Lush Times.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in 2018 agriculture bill, food security, Labour, Labour agricultural policy, Labour shadow DEFRA team, Sue Hayman and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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