Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 627)



  620. It may be more efficient than getting my parish council to do it.
  (Mr Barrett) The notion of paying land managers and farmers to do the work of the highway authorities is something that we think about. The mechanisms by which you do that—you are talking about whole local government—are difficult. The notion of sub-contracting managers or farmers—

  621. Very often there is no money directly provided for this purpose so the issue is really to say "you have this amount of footpath on your property with these stiles, you are paid a unit amount to do that and if you do not do it you will not get the money and you will also be prosecuted", a simple mechanism. I would have thought that would be a more effective use of the powers we have in this area than what we have got at the moment.
  (Mr Barrett) Ultimately we would like something that works. Our argument is premised on the fact that it is a shortsighted local authority that does not see the economic value and other values, health, etc., etc., of a cleared footpath. Actually they should be putting money into clearing footpaths and whether they want to sub-contract farmers to do it or otherwise is up to them but they should be putting money in because there is a greater benefit to their community. Should the footpaths be opened? I can only return to foot and mouth to point out what happened to the countryside when the footpaths were closed.

Phil Sawford

  622. Local food and other opportunities to generate income. You suggest that people have lost the link between food and the landscape. What other things could farmers do to generate income, to sell directly to walkers and others through the marketplace? How could they re-establish that link between food and the countryside?
  (Ms Swales) I think if you go out and talk to farmers there are quite a lot of initiatives developing. There is quite a strong entrepreneurial spirit out there amongst many farmers, although obviously they have gone through a very tough time recently, in terms of them looking at market opportunities, whether that relates to marketing the food they have got. I spoke to a farmer last year as part of the Hills Task Force who basically was taking the lamb from Cumbria down to Borough Market in London and he was getting more for a leg of lamb than he was getting for the whole lamb up in Cumbria. He had taken those sorts of initiatives. Of course that is not the answer for everybody but I think there are a lot of farmers out there looking and exploring new markets, local food links and getting their food to consumers, getting local hotels, for example, to buy and use local produce. The supermarkets have a role to play here in helping to promote and source local regional foods. Some of the supermarkets have taken some of those initiatives. I know Booths Supermarket, which is a northern chain, for example, is sourcing beef and lamb very much from the local farmers and has made commitments as to the amount of beef and lamb they will sell through their stores. There is a role for the whole food industry to come together to help farmers on the food side. There are lots and lots of really interesting ideas out there. I was very impressed by how many ideas there were within farming families. People are thinking creatively, not just about themselves as food producers but delivering things in the broader sense. Farmers' wives are getting heavily involved in diversification and setting up new businesses. One which made me smile particularly was a farmer's wife in the Yorkshire Dales, a very remote rural area, who was making high class lingerie and selling it through a mail order company and making a very good income and bringing it back into the farm and keeping that farming business and that farming family afloat. That is the last thing you would have thought of in relation to a farming business. There is a lot of really good stuff going on out there but it needs help from Government, it needs pump priming, farmers need advice and training, getting the skills to do those sorts of things. If for the last 30 years you have concentrated on rearing your sheep or your cattle or producing wheat or barley and suddenly you are starting to move into these sorts of areas it is really quite a new challenge for a lot of people and that is where there is an incredibly important role for Government in facilitating that change which is needed.

  623. But how do we get the link? If you actively encourage ramblers or bird watchers or whatever on to your land, how do you get some income from that? Do you just let them walk past the house or do you sell ice creams? Are there not ways that you can join those two things together so you are not just someone who passes by the farm gate on the way to look at the birds but there is a "hello, let us sell you something", there is a more direct link?
  (Ms Swales) I think many farmers are doing that. I was in the Lake District over the weekend in Borrowdale and there is a very good farming family there, it is actually a National Trust farm. They set up a café, they started with a café, they have an access route through their farm so they are grabbing people in and selling them teas, scones and whatnot. The next step they took was to say "Hang on a minute, people are asking about the farm and what we do here. We have got good fell-bred lamb" so they have got a refrigerator in the café and they are selling vacuum packed lamb to walkers and people who are walking away and putting it in the boot of their car. That is a very practical demonstration of the sorts of things that farmers are doing. They also offer B&B. They have truly gone down the diversifying route but they are essentially still a very typical hill farm in the environmentally sensitive area of the Lake District and are looking after the environment too. It is a very beautiful place, if you know it. Farmers are doing that. Okay, it is not going to be for everybody, it is not going to be the answer for everybody, but there are a lot of opportunities out there and I think that is exactly how the connections are being made in people's minds.
  (Mr Barrett) The Ramblers' Association has something like 600 organised walks every week and then, of course, there are literally millions of individuals, groups of friends, who go walking in the countryside every week. Those people are stopping off at pubs, B&Bs, cafés, shops, etc., and some of those have farmer involvement already. It is the obvious things like food, accommodation, crafts, services, that are the things that can be directly sold to users of the countryside through the marketplace. The issue is about the farmers being in effect the downstream beneficiary of improved landscape and stewardship in the sense that people who come into the countryside do create opportunities for diversification.

  624. Could I quickly move on to organic food. Is there any evidence that people buy organic food because it is good for the environment? We know that people will buy Fair Trade food because of human rights, we know that people will buy organic food probably through animal welfare considerations, but at the end of the day we often want cheap food and people perhaps turn a blind eye. Is there evidence that people buy organic food because it is good for the environment? Second to that, if they pay that premium for organic food, how can we guarantee that any part of that is passed on to the farmer?
  (Mr Wynne) The evidence suggests that people buy organic food for a variety of reasons and I suspect a perception of health benefits is at the top of those reasons, but it is more complicated than that and there is a limited amount of research which says that the environment definitely figures in there as one factor. The second question was how do you ensure that the premium gets back to the farmer? You cannot ensure that. The farmer and the food chain can work to help a large proportion of that get back to the farmer himself but I do not think there can be any guarantees. Direct marketing obviously from those organic farmers who can cope with that, and that is quite a big business challenge so, as Vicki said, I would not suggest that every farmer suddenly went into direct processing and marketing, but those that have are getting very good results. I think the food chain centre idea in the Curry Report is one interesting proposal to help to promote a more even distribution through the food chain.


  625. We must move on. Can I ask one final question. We tend to think of farming and food production on one side and then on the other side we list all these wonderful things like the environment, recreation, as if they are all part of a coherent whole but there are bound to be tensions, are there not, for example, between the encouragement of biodiversity and access? To what extent are we talking about compatible alternatives to food production and to what extent do we have to make choices?
  (Mr Barrett) You are right to say there are tensions, and you gave the example of the tension between biodiversity and access. I think tension is fair but conflict, no. A practical example of that was the environmental recreation conservation NGOs with a total membership of something like six million worked very harmoniously together on the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and managed to resolve those kinds of tensions to a very real extent. The RSPB, for example, were not against public access and the ramblers were not against appropriate and sensible restrictions during the breeding season, for example. What everybody wanted was sensitive land management. I think there is broad consensus out there amongst environmental recreation conservation groups about what sort of a countryside we should be striving to create.

  626. You are going to continue this happy consensus, are you?
  (Mr Wynne) If I might add, to take that a stage further, at the moment all of those many interests which are identified do feel largely excluded from current public policy in the agriculture sector and that, to some extent, is why it is easy to band together and make joint arguments. Assuming the reform does come, and yes there are going to be choices and priorities, I would like to suggest whilst I said earlier it is quite difficult to put a pound sign, to put a pure economic valuation on some of those commodities, those public goods, they are fantastically well quantified in their own right. The data sets on biodiversity, what are the most threatened, the most important globally and internationally, the data is superb, and coming up with a rational set of priorities of where you direct and where you target public expenditure through a new policy I really do not think is that big a problem. I think there will have to be compromises but I agree with my colleague, I think you can work those through without too much problem.

  627. You both said that we all know where we want to go in a sense and while we are articulating aspirations we need to move to a determined policy and we need to move to a policy in which you have got a broadly accessible scheme for farmers with the ability to enhance that and increment that. Whether we do it by bidding into the scheme, which has got many attractions in terms of setting a rate, or whether we do it by a fixed scheme is another matter. It has also been remarked that things like countryside stewardship and ESAs may not be very effective and certainly are administratively extremely heavy. How we square the circle between schemes which are sensitive enough to reflect the local environment and yet they are not so complex that the administrative cost is very heavy and they are burdensome is clearly something that we have got to crack. If you have got any way of cracking it would you let us have it some time in the next six weeks. I am not asking you to reply to that now, I am leaving you that to mull on. At some stage we have got to sit down and say this is the sort of way in which farmers can come into these schemes, this is how we are going to describe them, there is not an agenda there, and you clearly have some very strong interests in getting an agenda which works from everybody's point of view, the farmer, the administrative point of view, value for money as far as the public is concerned and definably in terms of cost, which is the eternal Treasury preoccupation.
  (Mr Wynne) We would be delighted to provide that information, therefore I will not apply to endeavour to reply to that to now, but let me just make this one last point, please. The kind of incremental slow progress we are making in policy reform at the moment is, I think, the most disastrous model for the farming community. Before we get to the stage of being able to do that we have to step wise change so that there is enough money in the pot to pay for public benefits, to come up with a suite of rational schemes which will satisfy the question that you have given me. We can do it but we have to move, therefore, a substantial chunk of money from production subsidies into a system which pays for public goods as soon as possible.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that and thank you for coming, it has been a very interesting session. If you would like to give way now we have the Council for the Protection of Rural England, who have probably been sitting behind you in any case, so we do not need to do any introductions with them, we will go straight in. Thank you very much. If there is anything that you wished you had said which you have not, tell us, and if there is anything you said you wished you had not then it is a bit late. If there is anything you want to clarify then please get in touch. Thank you.

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