Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)



  580. Finally, before others ask their questions, your suggestion for national re-localisation concentrates on research, pilot projects and the use of ICT in supply chains. Could you briefly give us some details of how those elements would contribute towards your overall aim that you have described? You have touched on this but if you could just give a concrete illustration of what it would look like to do this?
  (Mr Allen) One of the classic examples, I suppose, is that we are exporting and importing identical produce between different areas of the EU. Lamb is one example where almost identical weights are moving between different areas. If information and communications technology could be utilised to make a system available where if you are looking for a particular product you can see where the nearest producer is and then build a dialogue with your nearest producer then it makes sense to try that avenue before you explore bringing it in from Finland, Iceland or Belgium.

  581. Would that be more expensive for the consumer necessarily?
  (Mr Allen) No, not at all, primarily because of the externalities, the things that nobody pays for. You could argue, as many people do, that you pay three times for your food: initially in subsidies, then over the counter and, again, paying for the externalities that are left behind, such as the foot and mouth crisis. If all the externalities are internalised then local produce will come out very well financially.

  Mr Öpik: Thank you very much.

Dr Turner

  582. I would like to ask some questions about the critical reactions to your proposals. Some of them, no doubt, will be known to Mr Hughes from reading the press. On an objective basis, thinking of my own family, we never had any problems during the fuel crisis getting a wide range of foods. Frankly, I think there has been a gross exaggeration of the problems, certainly in my part of the country there were none at all during the foot and mouth crisis. I think there was one day when my wife said that there was something not there, but that happens anyway when one goes to the shops sometimes. Is it not objectively a fact that despite what you read and hear about the scare stories, the western consumer has access to a wide range of foods, foods are safer than ever before and healthier and better protected than in the past? Is that not the actuality of where we have got to?
  (Mr Allen) Speaking from our point of view, perhaps at the end of the supply chain in rural Machynlleth there were shortages during the fuel crisis, partially as a result of lack of supply and partially as a result of panic buying. If we envisage perhaps a fuel dispute that lasts considerably longer that is out of our hands then I think if the shops do become empty the farms around the shops will still be producing milk but there will not be the bulk tankers to pick it up to drive it into the West Midlands to the creameries who will then drive it back out packaged and processed. We do not have the infrastructure of milk churns any more that can simply bring the milk from the farms into the towns. I understand from talking to some of the local dairymen that that would actually be an illegal practice now, what was a perfectly acceptable practice as recently as the 1950s. I would not make the argument that we are suffering at the moment but what we have created is a system which is perhaps more fragile than we realise it is.

  583. So you are really arguing for an insurance policy type of approach?
  (Mr Allen) There is very little argument against selective re-localisation, that there is any problem with it.

  584. Some would say differently. No doubt Mr Hughes has seen an article in the Financial Times by Martin Wolf of 4 April?
  (Mr Hughes) No, I have not. Is Martin Wolf from Elm Farm Research Centre?

  Chairman: He is an economic commentator for the Financial Times.

Dr Turner

  585. If I can just quote from his article. He says "the view that we must now move to organic, small-scale farming and local trade is a romantic folly". Given the opportunity on the record today, what would you say to critics like him who think that you are basically, I suppose, trying to drive us back into a romantic past that had no reality?
  (Mr Hughes) You are making a link between organic and local and there is not necessarily a link between the two.

  586. He was.
  (Mr Hughes) We are not making that distinction. As a Centre we prioritise local/organic and sometimes we may purchase things which are local over organic, it depends on the individual circumstances. That is a choice we make as a Centre and as a business.
  (Mr Allen) Certainly we are not envisaging a return to a plethora of small holdings surrounding Liverpool. What we are looking at is perhaps to designate a food shed for Liverpool and to look at the food producing ability of the area around Liverpool and then to try to build a relationship between the urban consumers in Liverpool and the rural producers. I think as a society our urban/rural dialogue is very weak in Britain at the moment. There is no link, there is no partnership, between producers in rural areas and consumers in urban areas. Re-localisation would help rebuild that bridge, which I think is an important bridge for a healthy society. There is no reason why we should be thinking about returning to small scale farms, in fact it could be quite large farms, it is simply not driving the food all the way from Düsseldorf to Liverpool when it could be produced identically much nearer. There is something about that that just seems sensible to me.

  587. I find it rather strange that so much produce disappears down to London before it comes back to Norfolk. Could I ask about your approach in terms of achieving your objectives because there I detect a degree of romanticism myself, the idea that simply by informing the consumer they will possibly pay more or do different. I think you have tied yourself to persuasion rather than any element of compulsion in the way forward. Did I understand that correctly, that you believe it has got to be persuasion, or do you see a role for tax changes for the nation looking to find someone to hit with what you have referred to as the external costs?
  (Mr Allen) For a start, if you are shipping food around by air you are not paying for the planet's carrying capacity to deal with that pollution and to rebalance the atmosphere, nobody is paying for that. They are not even paying the tax on aviation fuel. There are a lot of external costs that really need to be internalised before we can genuinely talk about—

  588. What practical proposals would you have for actually seeing some of the external costs of aircraft flights assigned?
  (Mr Hughes) A tax on kerosene is an obvious one.

  589. Do you think that in the global market that could be done unilaterally? How would you see that put in place?
  (Mr Hughes) I think that remains to be seen. It has not happened so far but it does not mean it cannot happen.
  (Mr Allen) As we increasingly realise that the global ecosystem services provided by the planet are of a finite capacity and that we are unclear how much more headroom we have before we reach the limits of that capacity globally, I can see the need to equally distribute the access to that carrying capacity amongst other countries of the world and a taxation system may be one means of doing that.
  (Mr Hughes) Obviously the taxation point Paul has mentioned but I take your point that it has to be more than just publicising and getting that sort of dialogue, there have to be other mechanisms for pushing that or for encouraging it. It could be targets, I think that remains to be seen. That may come out in any kind of research that is done. Maybe that highlights another need for research, to find out what mix works and what mechanisms need to be applied to make it happen if you want that element in your local economy, which is more robust, to exist and to continue to exist.
  (Mr Allen) I also feel that the general public do not have any mechanism for currently finding out how far their food travels. There was a very interesting study on Week In, Week Out on BBC Wales where they had a piece of lamb that said "Local Welsh Lamb" on it, they took it in the streets and said "how far do you think this has travelled" and most people said between 30 and 80 miles because it said "Local Welsh Lamb". They followed its path and it had travelled 750 miles to end up 50 miles from where it was actually living. When faced with that sort of information people, like yourself I am sure, would think that is not sensible, it does not make sense for food to be travelling that far. Informing people and providing viable alternatives will, we hope, put an increasing amount of resources into the local economy at a time when people in their hearts really do want to support local farmers. They are asking us for things that they can do.

Mr Jack

  590. I was interested in how you define "local".
  (Mr Allen) It varies from sector to sector and probably within agriculture it varies from area to area. It could be what we think of as tight re-localisation within, say, a 50 to 100 mile radius around the town or some things could be re-located to the UK and would have a huge impact on reducing the amount of food miles. "Local" does not necessarily have one defined fixed meaning, it varies from food to food and from sector to sector.

  591. Are there any models of localised supply chains that would meet your parameters which you have observed outside the United Kingdom that you would like to draw to our attention?
  (Mr Allen) None that I have at the moment but it is an area of very interesting research.

  592. Even within the European Union there are some countries like the United Kingdom, tight, close knit, where we have very centralised distribution systems for our food, which I think has helped establish a supermarket mentality, whereas in other parts of Europe, for example in Italy, there are supermarkets but small shops, and therefore localised supply chains, have survived. I think it is one of those areas for further research. You mentioned research. Who do you think ought to be responsible for trying to promote some of the answers to the questions that you have posed to the Committee this morning?
  (Mr Hughes) I was going to say it certainly needs to be multi-disciplinary, there needs to be a lot of people involved from all sectors. I do not think it should be the responsibility of just one organisation.

  593. For example, do you think that the new Regional Development Agencies are addressing this issue in a sensible and practical fashion, or has it just not appeared on their radar yet?
  (Mr Allen) I think it is beginning to appear on their radar. With any local economy there is a section of local needs met with local resources. As you say, in Europe there are many places where it is much higher than in the UK. One of the most important things about that part of the economy is that it is proving to be the most robust as the de-localised parts, the parts that relate to inward investment, are now literally unbolting themselves and moving to new areas where labour is cheaper or there are new development systems. The parts of the economy that meet local needs with local resources are proving the most resilient and, therefore, are catching the eye of the Development Agencies.

  594. One of the aspects I did not see covered in your paper is the question of seasonality. We have become used to the luxury of cheating the seasons domestically, how would you approach the question of re-educating the public that they should not anticipate 52 weeks of the year supply of all the things which currently have to be moved around the globe which do not meet with your approval?
  (Mr Allen) If we had, say, as has happened with organics, a large number of top TV chefs all signing up and saying, "I am not going to cook out of season, that is not the way I want to do things", it would raise that profile with the customers. When visitors come to our centre and they have been on the course, if, for example, an out of season fruit should appear in our restaurant, because people have the awareness they will point that out to us. We would like to think it could become one of the things which just is not done any more to serve at a dinner party out of season foods. Serving local, in season, would be something which would be seen as stating who you are and what you believe in.

  595. We live in a highly developed country in terms of our dependence on urban systems. One of the advantages of the current food supply network is that it spreads risk globally, if one moved in your direction how do you deal with the question of risk of supply? Let us assume ten, 15 years down the road we have disaggregated these global mechanisms and we are returning more to the Victorian picture, which is the one you describe—and I remember those concentric circle diagrams we used to get showing the local supply chain outside the city—and an area suddenly gets inundated with flood, how does your model deal with the risk?
  (Mr Allen) We are not advocating a monopoly for relocalised suppliers, we are saying the two systems do exist side-by-side but currently the mix is wrong, there is far too much globalised food and far too little localised food. We would suggest that the mix is redressed but we are not looking for a monopoly for localised food. One of the things about localisation is that it is compatible with globalisation, the two things can exist side-by-side. In some ways they have to, nobody would want to see globalisation taken to its 100 per cent inevitable conclusion, there will also always be a mixture of local and global but what we have to do is do some research to see how those two things can sit together.

  596. That is interesting. I am a supporter, in fact chairman, of an initiative locally called Keep the Fylde Farming—my constituency is called the Fylde, the area around my part of West Lancashire is the Fylde. One of the problems facing us though is that, for example, milk producers contribute to Lancashire Dairies but it is difficult for the consumer to identify that what comes off the Fylde farms is a Lancashire Dairies product. That is not quite localisation in your terms but it would be one way of supporting the local agricultural economy. Who do you think should be responsible for improving the flows of consumer information which you mentioned earlier?
  (Mr Allen) The Ministry would be one good place to start. Schools also. We are ending up with generations of people who do not really know how food is produced because there is nowhere local to take them to show them. With relocalisation that awareness begins and schools can build relationships with producers.

  597. So you would advocate perhaps the construction of a localisation index?
  (Mr Allen) I would imagine that the Business Development Agencies in the regions could have an important role to play in that.

  Mr Jack: Thank you.

Mr Öpik

  598. As you know, I think that relocalisation concepts probably do represent an important element in future farm planning. The question I have is to what extent do you think it would be viable to test that hypothesis out in a test area? I happen to be near the Machynlleth in West Wales, do you think it would be viable to set up an experimental relocalisation initiative throughout Montgomeryshire and the Mid Wales area? Is that something we could do as a pilot?
  (Mr Allen) Absolutely. There is no reason whatsoever why that could not be done. If that produces answers different from what we think they will be, all the better, we have learned something we did not know. Also I think regional twinnings are important, where you have twinning with perhaps an area in Europe, where relocalisation is stronger, so when locals, farmers, teachers, development workers, business people go there and see how strong the localised links are there, they will bring something of that back with them.


  599. I have a vivid recollection that when the Committee went to the United States looking at world trade we went to Minnesota and we met Pilsbury, one of the large America companies, and they had a lady whose job it was to do research on consumer habits and what the consumer wanted. She told us that in the United States now the demands for convenience was such that the housewife was not willing to spend more than ten minutes in the kitchen preparing anything. They did not mind sitting down with the family to eat a meal but they did not want to spend their time alone in the kitchen preparing it. For breakfast food people did not want to have to put the milk on the cornflakes, that was a labour too many. With a very high number of women in work, which is characteristic with the United Kingdom as well, this demand to push towards convenience was something they had to take into account. The philosophy and the mechanisms you are underlining, are they compatible with that sort of sociological trend?
  (Mr Allen) I am not sure that that trend is wholly manifest in the United Kingdom, there is some resistance to that. There is no fundamental reason why you could not have a more equitable mix than we have now. I do not think, necessarily, we want the milk already on our cornflakes, to my mind they would be soggy mush as soon as you opened them. What we are finding is that we now have housewives having to think, "Is this really safe? Is this really what I should be giving to my children". That, somehow, takes some of the fun away from preparing food, whereas the systems where you know you can ring up the farm that produced it, you know that you can ring up and you will get a warm reception from the person at the other end, and you can even visit the place where it is produced and buy some there on the farm, that is nice to know. I am not saying that everyone will take that up all of the time, but it is something that money cannot buy.

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