Conservative Farming Policy

A Conservative Lib-Dem government is ideally placed to represent the views of rural Britain. So what can the countryside expect from this unlikely coupling? Ed Hamer investigates

Driving through the countryside in the run-up to the recent election you would have noticed a fine crop of Conservative billboards springing-up in fields, hedgerows and farmyards, indicating in no uncertain terms the party of choice among Britain's farming community. That none of the other main parties saw fit to produce a billboard the size of a 5-bar-gate should tell us something about the certainty with which this core Tory vote is taken for granted.

Make no mistake about it, the farming industry's affiliation with the Conservatives is nearly as old as the hills, and certainly as old as the Tory landowning dinosaurs which first stalked them. There is, of course, an obvious symbiosis between a Conservative party which stands for traditional capitalist enterprise and good old wealth, and the 35,000 or so landed gentry who today own half of Britain1 .

For many years this symbiosis has worked well. Landowners have dutifully supported the Conservatives with whom they associate themselves, both morally and socially. In return consecutive Tory governments have facilitated the best possible deal for the largest UK producers within the emerging European market, turned a blind-eye to "permitted development" in the countryside and campaigned for fox-hunting to be enshrined as a basic human right.

On a more pragmatic note it was the Tory government's investment in our agricultural colleges under Margaret Thatcher that made us, for a time, world leaders in agriculture research and development. It was also John Gummer's deft bargaining as farming minister under John Major that secured UK producers the protection they demanded within a newly globalizing EEC. Unfortunately however, such determined support during the hey-day of production-linked-subsidies came at an inevitable cost.By 1997, eighteen years of Conservative sponsored subsidies coupled with an unparalleled drive in domestic and export production had left the countryside reeling. Farmland bird numbers declined by 30 per cent between 1980 – 20002, Groundwater nitrate levels increased by 65 percent3 and the reckless intensification of livestock production left us with the BSE crisis as a parting shot.

Enter the new Green Deal

Fast-forward to today and we find we are living in a very different world: "The environment and food production is not an either-or, we need both. It is clean water, healthy soils and thriving biodiversity upon which our food security ultimately depends, and it is the job of Government to ensure that farmers are provided with the right kind of incentives to do what they do best: produce high quality food in harmony with the environment."
A quote from Jonathan Porritt perhaps? Maybe Patrick Holden or even Prince Charles? Well, no, the impassioned speech above was actually delivered at the National Farmers' Union annual conference in Birmingham earlier this year by James Paice, our recently appointed Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The conference which was attended by more than 12,000 people was also, not surprisingly, used as a platform to launch the Conservatives rural election manifesto 'A new age of Agriculture'. It may be cynical to suggest that the Lib Dem's own offering: 'A Manifesto for Farming and the Uplands', which appeared a few weeks later was based entirely upon Conservative legwork, but the similarities between the two documents will have certainly come as a welcome relief to a recently hung parliament struggling to find its feet.In true Tory style the Conservative manifesto sets out by espousing the values of trade liberalisation and the free market before remembering the fact that the NFU constitutes a large part of its core membership and admitting; "it is difficult for our farmers to compete with imports from countries where production standards – and therefore costs - are lower".

The Conservatives new Green Deal certainly takes a central role throughout the document with four out of 17 pages dedicated to 'Increasing production whilst protecting the environment'. Along with a bold recognition that "our farmland is a national resource for future generations and the very foundation of our food security", there is a clear commitment that "in our search for increased production we must not repeat the mistakes of the past by adopting damaging farming practices".

Writing on his blog a few months prior to the manifesto's launch Jim Paice went even further to suggest that: "As pressures on our natural resources grow we do not believe in production at any cost. There can be no return to the days of the past, when Government encouraged intensive farming practices and the clearance of hedgerows and woodland."

For its part the Lib Dem manifesto closely echoes the Tories on the need for further decoupling of subsidies from production, tackling red tape and inefficient bureaucracy within Defra and rigorous and transparent food labelling. The one inspiration they do offer however is the introduction of a farming apprenticeship scheme to "help pass on the vital skills and knowledge of the industry and to encourage the next generation of farmers to conserve and maintain our cherished landscapes".

A very rural coalition

In many ways a Lib Dem-Con coalition is ideally poised to represent the views of rural Britain. A glance at a map of the recent election results will tell you that the parties, between them, now hold roughly 85 per cent of the country's rural constituencies. In terms of driving policy however the Lib Dem's are likely to be playing a less than marginal role after it was announced that Defra's entire ministerial team will be drawn solely from Tory benches.

So how are we to judge an all-new Conservative department who, in taking control of Britain's farming for the first time in more than 12 years, have made a firm commitment to place the environment at the heart of farming? To many it may seem impossible that the Tories can juggle the seemingly contradictory goals of maintaining agricultural exports and prioritizing national food security while at the same time conserving our natural resources.

According to Zac Goldsmith, himself a farmer and recently elected Conservative MP for Richmond Park, they don't necessarily need to: "I don't see any conflict at all with Conservative thinking and the green imperative, particularly in relation to food security. We need to recognise that cheap food isn't as cheap as we think. If a company is producing food but exhausting and polluting the environment the taxpayer pays for that. That's less likely to be the case with more localised, organic agriculture so there is a kind of indirect subsidy there."

He does however accept that our current model of food imports is damaging not only farm livelihoods but also animal welfare: "In Britain, we have relatively high animal welfare standards and effectively what we're saying to our farmers is - you have to adhere to these standards but we're still going to buy junk from the world's markets - .We're pushing them out of business, and doing nothing to curb cruelty. We should maintain our high standards, but we should impose the same standards on products we buy from abroad."

Encouragingly he is also keen to highlight the role small-farmers will have to play in achieving this goal: "Broadly, the debate is shifting. Not long ago UNEP, UNESCO and the World Bank issued a report in which they accepted for the first time that the small-scale diverse farms are more productive in terms of land use than big industrial monocultures. They are less productive in terms of labour because they require more people but that's not a bad thing given there are so many people without jobs. This suggests a real U-turn."

Zac Goldsmith's comments are echoed by the surprising admission within the Tories manifesto that current levels of food imports into the UK coupled with decreasing domestic production are inherently unsustainable: "Allowing this trend to continue is neither morally nor strategically desirable when climate change is reducing the world's productive capacity and global demand for food is projected to double by 2050". The manifesto goes on to highlight; "the importance of local food groups and farmers' markets to reconnect people and food".

A New Age of Agriculture?

To the casual observer such comments certainly suggest a U-turn in Tory policy away from the accepted wisdom of agricultural industrialisation we have witnessed over the past half-century. It appears there has been a recognition, in principle at least, of the shortcomings of a globalised food system and an active interest in localised alternatives, There is little doubt that the Conservatives must also now be accountable for their commitment to prioritise both environmental sustainability and national food security.

With this optimistic outlook in mind I managed to catch-up with Jim Paice following his appointment as Minister to get an idea of how UK farming could change for the better under a Conservative government. I began by asking him if his stated opposition to "production at any cost" signalled a move away from further intensification towards more environmentally sensitive farming?

"No it doesn't," was his direct response: "What it means is that we've got to learn to farm more in harmony with the environment as many successful commercial farms do. Too many farmers think that they still have to make a choice between commercial farming and looking after the birds and the bees. I don't believe that is the case and don't believe that it's an acceptable choice. There are many examples of both privately and publicly owned farms which have successfully managed to improve biodiversity, reduce pollution and emissions while at the same time increasing their output."

Picking up on a recent visit made by Mr Paice to New Zealand to meet farmers supplying UK supermarkets I asked the Minister if he thought that this model of food imports was inherently sustainable? "What we have to do is look at overall impact- while food miles are a good indicator you need to look at overall energy used in production. For certain products the overall carbon footprint is lower if they are produced abroad due to climatic advantages- it all depends- most lamb comes to us in refrigerated containers which is about the lowest carbon footprint form of transport.". Really?

Regarding the manifesto's obvious commitment to opening our domestic market while at the same time highlighting the need for UK food security I was interested to know if Mr Paice saw a contradiction between these two objectives- particularly in the face of rising oil costs. "Well no I don't see any conflict between the two at all, food security is right at the top of our agenda, but food security is the capacity to produce the majority of our needs. We've always been a trading nation and – given today's consumer preferences- the need for continued import and export is going to be hugely important. As far as oil dependency is concerned I think it is certainly something that the cost factor will eventually determine."

A New Age for the Market

The Minister was well aware of growing calls from communities across the country to re-localise the food economy, however he was again keen to highlight consumer spending patterns as the most effective method of driving this trend: "The main way we can help this is by decentralising government procurement from heads of department in Whitehall down to schools and hospitals who will then buy local food. We can use public procurement as a driver to increase not only availability of local food but its distribution and the opportunity for people to buy local food."

This was a view repeated by Zac Goldsmith who believes that in addition to more honest food labelling procurement can play a vital role in shaping consumer trends: "We spend about £12 billion a year on food for schools and hospitals and instead of buying the cheapest junk on the world's markets we could invest the money in sustainable local produce. We would be pouring money into the rural economy, reducing our use of oil, and we would be giving children and patients much better quality food."

Interestingly Mr Paice was also keen to leave the contentious issue of GM-crops down to cost efficiency: "We support the need for exhaustive trials- any new product must be properly evaluated for food safety and environmental safety. Once the technology can prove it is safe it is then a matter for the market to decide- whether the consumer is going to buy the overall product. There has been huge opposition in the past- my gut-instinct is that it is beginning to soften, particularly as some of the traits that are coming through are more consumer orientated such as vitamin and mineral enrichments."

And here, it appears, there is a contradiction which cannot be ignored. Despite their best intentions to draft an agriculture policy reflective of a 'modern and progressive Conservative Party' there is a certain uneasiness about the confidence with which the Tories will be relying on their trusted old friend - the market - to control the "efficiencies" of food production. Although Mr Paice's comments honour one of the most elementary rules of Conservatism - letting the market decide - it is an ideal undeniably at odds with their stated aim of increasing production whilst protecting the environment and neglects their commitment to have learnt from the mistakes of the past.

The result is likely to be a new round of decoupled subsidies targeting payments for specific biodiversity services on one part of the farm while offsetting the costs of intensifying production and rising oil prices on another. In pursuing such a goal the Tories will no doubt cite research conducted by Cambridge University and outlined in Science journal4 that suggests "high-yield farming may allow more species to persist" than an alternative holistic management approach.

While on-farm biodiversity may well benefit, an emphasis on open-market competition between European farmers will inevitably lead to further specialisation and a marked decline in overall agricultural diversity. Similarly, public procurement may well be devolved down to the level of schools and hospitals but despite the best intentions to buy-local, experience tells us that contracts will still favour the largest intensive producers over those with smaller economies of scale.

If, as Mr Paice suggests, consumer confidence in GM foods is also left to the whims of the market then there is no question who will ultimately come out on top. Within Europe; Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer have a combined annual turnover in excess of €44bn. In a Conservative market-driven industry it is hard to believe that the UK's anti-GM pressure groups could begin to compete with the pro-GM marketing blitz that awaits us.

Listening to Mr Paice it is clear to see that the Conservatives have indeed listened attentively to farmers' concerns over recent years. Calls to curb government intervention in their industry have been recognised and will no doubt be acted upon as a priority. The proposed introduction of a Supermarket Ombudsman will come as a welcome relief to farmers' repeated frustrations at the power of large retailers, as will the widely-anticipated national badger-cull in response to the spread of Bovine TB.

Walking a Fine Line

Without wishing to appear cynical, the Party's traditional farming supporters will have also taken heart from the appointment of former industry lobbyist and biotech proponent Caroline Spelman as Secretary of State for Defra. Between 1989 and 2009 Mrs Spelman was co-owner of Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a firm specialising in lobbying the government on behalf of pharmaceutical and agri-business interests. She has also been Director of the International Federation of Sugar Beet growers and sat on the board of the NFU.

David Cameron's new team at Defra are undeniably walking a fine line. Last time the Tories were in charge, British farmers had their very own department in the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Today their budget, and indeed their loyalties, come with a shared responsibility to a new-age of Conservative environmentalism. In the run up to the general election the Conservatives famously promised to put the 'f' for farming – back into Defra. While they have certainly made a promising start at doing just that, we can only hope that the 'e' for environment isn't replaced with an 'e' for economics quite so enthusiastically.

  • 1. Cahill, K. (2001) Who Owns Britain; The hidden facets behind land ownership in the UK and Ireland
  • 2. Spencer, J. & Kirby, K. (1992) An inventory of ancient woodland for England and Wales, Biological Conservation 62, 77-93.
  • 3. J A Skinner et al, "An Overview of the environmental impact of agriculture in the UK", Journal of Environmental Management, 50, II, June 1997, pp111-128
  • 4. Green. R. E. et al (2004) Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature, Science, 307, pp 550-555
This article originally appeared as 'True Blue in the Countryside' in The Land Issue 9 Autumn 2010