A Welsh Government White Paper on agriculture looms as Marcus Rashford has placed food at the centre of a political debate. CLA Cymru’s Robert Dangerfield tastes the future of farming in Wales – and says we need to stop taking food for granted and be willing to pay a little more for nutritious Welsh farm produce.
Many staple foodstuffs became more expensive in the UK when we joined the European Community back in ‘73. A loaf of bread cost nine-pence: even the smallest ha’penny-hike on a loaf was a 5% increase. The old system of supporting British farmers through Deficiency Payments – effectively an annually set reverse sales-tax – was replaced by the Common Agricultural Policy, (CAP). Decimalisation was just 23 months in – this, itself, was already held responsible for higher food-costs as prices were rounded-up to the nearest new penny.
We entered both the 1970s and Europe with farming geared to delivery for the Welfare State – by then this great post-war machine was getting on for twenty years old. Europe’s CAP had more far-reaching socio-economic and environmental ambitions than Britain’s former farm support system. The EU’s longest-serving policy, it had been founded in 1962 to produce affordable, safe food, provide a fair standard of living for farmers, preserve natural resources and save the environment. Arguably it was a victim of its own success. On Europe’s eastern margins, food-shortage-fatigued communities longingly turned their heads westward. Inside the European Community, however, critics said it protected EU farmers from healthy competition and stifled innovation, caused over-production, surplus and social-complacency about the value of food.
Price-rises ignited many social tensions back then. Quotes can always be found that social unrest and anarchy are anything from two to six meals away. Then, as now, a weather-eye had to be focused on the availability and affordability of healthy food for the whole of society.
“Still today, as many as 29 per cent of Welsh children are brought up in poverty. Fundamental questions we haven’t really addressed for a generation or more, are bubbling to the surface.”
Wales’ Sustainable Farming & Our Land process is expected to lead to a Welsh Government White Paper later this year. Here, over half a century later a government of 3 million people has the challenge to replace the CAP – a system serving an EU population of 450 million.
Substitute the “Welfare State” with today’s Welsh Government’s “Future Generations” principles: the vision is to find a better way of supporting farming and reconciling it with the delivery of public goods. After 4 years and two major Government Consultations, we find ourselves at a “landmark” consensus around the general principles of Sustainable Land Management: the trio of pillars that have actually driven policy for years: economic, environmental and social sustainability.
To the original challenges we can add a few problems facing us today: a commitment to combat the impacts of climate change, wider and more intense social principles, changing diets, greater expectation of access to the countryside, higher population yet a shrunken economy – and huge question-marks around export. One fall-out of this year’s pandemic crisis will be the ongoing health of the nation and food’s role in that.
“Relegated from the dining-table to the sofa, food’s often been taken for granted – even abused and denigrated – into fmcg fatuous novelties. The real value of feeding the nation must be restored.”
Devolution has enabled Wales to concentrate resources on Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. But the absence of certainty about the future budget restrains the Welsh Government from delivering detail about what support will be made available to whom, how and when. Designing and costing-up a scheme – and presenting a budgetary demand to Westminster has long been politically ruled-out in Cardiff. It all points to the underlying fact that we’re looking to create a new gold-standard – but, put into sharp focus by the immense Covid crisis bill – where’s the money coming from?
We’re distracted from this harsh reality by the obstacles immediately visible on our path.
Time is short: there’s a real squeeze on the Welsh agriculture White Paper’s legislative pipeline. This is likely to focus on Ministerial powers. And, next May, even if Welsh Labour gain a majority in the Senedd elections it’s possible that we may see a new set of faces, new ideas and priorities in the Welsh Government’s ministerial line-up the nuts-and-bolts will be determined in what could look like a new political world.
The Welsh Government is only now beginning to assess formulas for calculating value for public goods – not only for an individual land-holding, but holistic benefit too. Scheme eligibility, farm assessments, productivity schemes, cross-border problems and issues such as the commercial and environmental role of forestry and woodland still need to be resolved. A year ago we talked about “a Brexit deadline” and even the nature and length of a transition period. It’s now sinking-in that the transition period will, in fact, be the incipient scheme which will (rightly) exist in a permanent state of evolution.
Money will be the wind beneath its wings. Value-adding and export have been the traditional trade-winds for the economy. Any EU – or wider trade deals – outcome which does not at-worse replicate existing free-trade agreements will increase our self-sufficiency for many staple food products. It may be welcomed in many quarters but it will require investment through the supply-chains. In the Covid crisis we’ve heard that there’s a lot of money looking for a safe-haven. This may be one, but it may still be dampening a force for inflation.
Today the cost of food accounts for just-over 10 per cent of average UK household expenditure – 15 per cent for lower income families. Back in 1972, UK households spent a greater proportion of their income on a more limited choice of food. Central-heating could not be taken for granted. Freezers, microwaves, PCs and mobile-phones were yet to arrive.
“Cultural change, it seems, has relegated the priority-position of food in household expenditure. Could current circumstances turn this round? As a nation of food-producers, Wales might welcome it.”