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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 780-799)

TONY BURTON, ROB MACKLIN, ELLIE ROBINSON AND VICKI HIRD

WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2002

  780. It seems to me that there are two pressures that are coming in terms of support practices. There is the need to sustain the community or social life in rural areas. That is largely a matter for those people living in rural areas who would feel that is important. For the vast majority of the British population who live in urban areas, the key thing as far as they are concerned about the British countryside is: Is it a nice place to visit? Does it look nice? If the subsidies were removed, what effect would that have on the landscape, and would, in your view, the urban population accept it?
  (Mr Burton) We would be devastated if you did not replace that funding for production subsidies in another way to the positive management of what urban and rural people are wanting out of their land and out of their landscape. There would be a whole series of public benefits and expectations which would not be being satisfied and people would not be happy with the results. The issue here is not about the urban needs or the rural needs, it is about the needs of the nation, and those are actually fundamentally connected. What will ensure a healthy rural community is actually a healthy, high quality environment which people wish to visit, enjoy. We have just been through a very severe experience of looking at what the impact of a sick countryside is on both urban and rural communities in the aftermath of foot and mouth. We must avoid those kind of divides but we must recognise that a simple sweeping away of public support for farming would not deliver a whole set of other public benefits which society is looking for. In our view, it is an untenable scenario at the moment and we do not think it is actually a realistic scenario politically either.

Diana Organ

  781. I am not so sure that we ought to be spending lots of taxpayers' money on just providing the landscape which is the backdrop for tourism. Why can the consumer (ie, the tourist) or the people who are making money out of that business not pay for it?
  (Mr Burton) They can. We are not saying that this is the only way in which our landscapes should be managed or those public benefits should be provided. Farming policy should be much better integrated, with a whole set of other public policy mechanisms in terms of rural development, in terms of the rural White Paper, in terms of the future of tourism and in terms of future recreation. But farming policy has its own contribution to make in ensuring that we put in place the right forms of management to provide the sort of countryside that people are looking for. But it is not the only mechanism. We would look, for example, to much more innovative and interesting approaches in rural economic strategies, for example that have been developed by the RDAs, and we would also look at market-led mechanisms of the kind I think you are suggesting, whereby providing mechanisms to recycle income that is generated by tourists into the local area would be seen as another form of support for those communities and for that countryside.
  (Ellie Robinson) I think it is also looking at the added benefit of that spend. It is not just a pound spent on looking after the landscape that goes in the farmer's pocket; it has got a huge additional benefit. We see this as an investment both in the future economic health of rural and urban fringe areas. Not only is it direct job creation but it is the infrastructure that brings in 12 billion a year in countryside rural tourism. So the additionality effects of that spend, you could argue, is very good value for money: a very small amount of money spread over the countryside. I think you are right, we could get much better value out of that by the targeting of the things which really are going to deliver. We actually do not spend that much money on rural development at the moment and certainly we would not spend it all on land management. It is about how you get the maximum out of that. The fabric of rural areas is as much deserving of support as the actual land management as well.

  782. You are quite keen to spend taxpayers' money on environmental measures. I think we are all agreed, we are taking away the subsidy on production but giving it to other areas of the agricultural community, because we want this landscape tended, we want it looked after. But would the answer not be—I mean, the whole purpose of the National Trust, is it not, is that you would like to acquire most of our coasts and farm land?—for you to buy up the bits that people want to go to. As a result of your organisation and others like you, whether it is the Wildlife Trust or the Woodland Trust, they buy up the bits of land that we all want to go and look at and admire and you charge us for doing it.
  (Mr Burton) I think that would be a very unfortunate future which relied on—

  783. It means then that these awful crowded, huddled masses that you keep talking about on this crowded island, who live in places like Lambeth, who do not want to go, do not have to pay anything for it.
  (Mr Burton) We do not believe that the solution for the future for the countryside lies in the acquisition of the special places by organisations such as the National Trust. We have a much more partnership-based approach and the Trust itself is adopting that. We want to see solutions for the countryside that do not rely on our acquisitions of that countryside and we want to work with others to secure it. We believe that there are tens of millions of people in urban and rural areas who enjoy the benefit from the countryside. We would wish to encourage more. We believe there is a whole educational agenda here which we are also engaged in to connect people. We do not think we can give up on those people who have not got a physical or an emotional connection with the countryside. We want to provide those opportunities to the whole nation, and we believe that a combination of the maintenance and positive support for the countryside, combined with educational and life-long learning experiences which us and others can provide for those people, is an important component for the future of any policy. We are trying to connect town and country and to bring people together in trying to forge what it is we are trying to get out of the land and trying to get out of the farming landscape.
  (Mr Macklin) I think also we are trying not to fragment and polarise more than is already happening by the distortions which have happened so far. We do not want a flower-pot Britain, where there are little honey pots of interest and anything else can let rip. What we are trying to do is to make sure that there is some sensible provision for good environmental . . . and we are not talking just for the sake of it. We are talking about flood defence. We are talking about stopping people from having their insurance taken away from them or having their land flooded because it should have been—

  784. No, I am talking about how are we actually going to fund the landscape that we want, the landscape for public good or the landscape that can be used for the tourist industry. How can we fund the management of that land?
  (Mr Macklin) I agree, it is a combination. It is actually from people paying for it when they visit, they pay when they are staying in places, they pay to enter places, they pay to enjoy experiences. Obviously we are trying to encourage entrepreneurialism in our farmers as they stand. For the men who have grown up knowing only how to rear sheep, it is quite difficult to encourage them to become hoteliers, but it is happening and we are engaging with people to try to allow them to do it better. So we are trying to help farmers to help themselves, if you like, as the old adage goes. But we should not be mistaken, the incomes are very, very fragile that we are talking about in many of these areas. We have people who are living on very, very little money indeed, and of course none of their children, offspring, want to follow them into the family business: "No, thanks, I would rather be a builder." So the whole demography is very fragile too. If we want to have—as we want to have and I think the majority of people want to have—a rural economy which actually works and is not just abandoned and derelict, then we actually have to put the measures in place which are helpful to that. That is really what we are saying. It is certainly not, "We will fund everything out of the public purse and it does not have to be competitive, it does not have to look after itself." Of course not. But there are helpful measures and incentives which I think can help to deliver what we want.

Mr Lepper

  785. I am interested in what Mr Burton said a few moments ago about the National Trust in relation to land acquisition, because certainly the pace of your acquisition of land seems to be fairly speedy. I think the National Trust has 612,000 acres, the Wildlife Trust has 185,000 acres, the RSPB has 300,000 acres, and every time my constituents buy a Lottery ticket they are helping to fund that land acquisition, because of the grants those organisations get from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I do not see why you should be quite as defensive as you have been about that. You are obviously providing a service for people by what you do with that land, and maybe this is an important part of that transition that we have been spending so much time talking about.
  (Mr Macklin) It certainly is a help, but what we find increasingly is when we are dealing with things like diffuse pollution, buying one or two farms in a catchment does not make an awful lot of difference to the spawning grounds downstream or the habitat or whatever it is or even the tourism potential when they see algae floating past. So we are trying to engage far more widely than that, and I think that is very healthy. That is why we are working increasingly with the Environment Agency on training programmes, and we are trying to engage, and with groups of farmers as well, not individuals, and not necessarily from the National Trust either.

  786. Mr Macklin I think earlier said, talking about the farms that are on National Trust land, something like you cannot impose anything on those farmers. One of the things that attracted my local council, Brighton Council as it then was, some years ago, when it was looking to get rid of some of its farmland, was the National Trust's ideas about environmentally friendly ways of farming. Could you just tell us a bit more about how you encourage those environmentally friendly ways if you cannot impose things. Is it through tenancy agreements, through favourable terms to particular tenant farmers, or what?
  (Mr Macklin) It is the vagaries of land tenure in the United Kingdom really. With a 1986 Act tenancy, the full Agricultural Holdings Act, we cannot actually insist on tenants under that particular Act taking on environmental considerations. We can persuade and we can incentivise. For the more recent farm business tenancies we can lay down stipulations, and we do so where it is appropriate to do so, and we encourage tenants to adopt agri-environment schemes, of course. We try and use all the measures at our disposal. Having said all of that, and having had advice and the countless notes of information that are available, there is no substitute in our minds to actually getting people on the ground to talk to farmers. That may be not individually but it may be groups. So we have invested heavily in the last three years, and we now employ a dozen farm and countryside advisers to talk to farmers in their regions, and really explore what options are available. They are not just limited to environmental matters; they look at how to add value to produce, be that food, processing; how to improve tourism potential, seriously, not just playing at it, and what markets are being gone for. We look at what training needs there may be. It may be not the farmer himself but, say, the farmer's daughter who has the ability to come forward and do things. We are trying to be very flexible, and when you are going into that level of detail, of course, you do need to be talking one to one and working out possible options. That is really how we are engaging now, and we are having encouraging results so far, and certainly when I get to talk to groups of farmers, as we do frequently, their response is, "This is helpful. Thank you very much."
  (Ms Robinson) The approach just allows you to look at the business as a whole. You look at your whole asset base, the people you have there, your environmental assets, the quality you bring as a farmer, and that whole farm planned approach is one way to release the potential of the environment and the business together.
  (Mr Macklin) It is a very important microcosm of what might be available, obviously beyond the National Trust, because we are piloting this and using all sorts of tools. We are not pretending that our dozen farm advisers are experts in every field, but where they need to bring in expertise—dairy consultants, for example—we simply connect them and move on. We have very good value for money from having a continuity of advice. In the past the Trust has spent considerable funds on consultants who are in one minute and out the next. It is almost out of date as soon as the ink is dry. What we need is to build up a relationship, understand how the business is developing, it will change—within weeks usually—so we need to be able to review practices and say, "OK, that didn't work, this did." Also we are trying to work with the business side of things, because that is crucial. If you cannot make the money, it will not happen. We have been very keen. We have had some work with FBAS to get groups of our farmers together, and you get far better delivery and advice from the Farm Business Advisory Service when they can put 60 days' worth into a whole group of farmers rather than each one getting it on an individual basis. This is a good way of working which does not necessarily cost heaps of money, just using it more sensibly.
  (Ms Hird) On the issue of cost and getting value for money and "why don't we just do it through the market?" I wanted to point out that society is already paying a huge cost as well as the cost of the CAP, as you are, I am sure, aware. So there is that additional cost which we want to try and address through a win-win scenario that actually works, actually stopping the huge cost to the public health service from diseases, the huge cost for water treatment and these types of costs from pollution, flood defence and those kinds of things. It is tackling these costs, reducing the cost of the CAP, but not necessarily increasing the total taxpayer spend on farming, possibly reducing it, but actually getting all these things tackled together, and the animal welfare problems dealt with at the same time. I welcome the Curry Report suggestion of looking at benchmarking prices within the food chain. I think it is absolutely essential, because at the moment we do not see farms getting the cost of production covered in many sectors. That is what is needed for them to cover what they need in order to survive, but then where the market will never pay, the Government should intervene. That is what we are saying.

Mrs Shephard

  787. I have already touched on the point about locally produced food. Sustain calls for help in enhancing "the cultural and social benefits of food systems at a regional level." Would you like to explain what cultural and social benefits" you think can be secured and what do you mean by "regional?"
  (Ms Hird) We have a report called "Eating Oil"[18] which I can supply to you which covers a lot of these issues. Basically, we are looking at the whole food supply chain as to whether it is sustainable, whether it actually makes the food supply resilient, and whether it is efficient. This report shows that it is not. We are not just talking about farming there; we are actually talking about the food system itself. That is where our work comes from on this. In terms of the cultural and social benefits of a shorter food chain, I think I can probably say, rather than being necessarily local or regional, it is more diverse production, providing the diverse foods we need in order to have a healthy diet, the varieties of fruit and veg, for instance, that we do not have accessible at a regional or local level, actually building in a capacity to do that, getting resilience at a local or regional level so that we can supply the market, the community, at that level with what it actually needs, and also linking those production systems with systems for healthy food, to understand where that food comes from, having "Meet the Farmer" exchanges in the supermarket, helping people to know who the farmer is, for instance, or who the supplier is. Certainly we have a lot of work to do with public procurement in hospitals and schools, looking at how you link schools with the farming system and where food comes from. There is a huge amount that needs to be done there, as I am sure you have already touched on: the way in which children do not have a clue where food comes from and do not know how to cook it. All those areas are really crucial, and regional and local food is very much part of that. It has a big part to play in ensuring that we can create a better understanding in the community of where food comes from. There are also the obvious benefits of reducing the trucking of food around the country, food miles, about which we have had a campaign for a very long time, and despite which food miles are increasing; the amount of processed food travelling on roads is still going up. The supermarkets say they have the most efficient system. That unfortunately is not the case. It is efficient for them, but in totality it is a huge problem, and it is still growing. We need to tackle food miles, and that is a social issue because it involves air pollution, road transport, lorries on roads. Empirical studies in the US have shown that a more local and regional system does reduce fuel use compared to systems going inter-state. We need to do that kind of study here. There was a very good empirical study of CO2 emissions from a local versus national distribution system.

  788. Would you say your work was duplicated or overlapping work done by any other agency at all?
  (Ms Hird) The work on food miles?

  789. No; just what you describe. You say quite a lot of agencies are concerned with trawling the same scene.
  (Ms Hird) I hope so. I would love to think they were. We think it is very important.

  790. You hope that effort is duplicated?
  (Ms Hird) Not that effort is duplicated, but that we are examining the issue in a comprehensive way, which has not been the case up till now. We started the food miles campaign in 1994, and not one of the supermarkets had an officer looking at food and transport issues. Now they all do.

  791. You are saying there has been an increase in food miles, so would you say all this work, which you hope is being duplicated by a number of agencies, is effective?
  (Ms Hird) I do not think it is being duplicated, to be honest. I think the Department of Transport figures are there, and the Countryside Agency campaign is welcome, but not enough. All the environment agencies are working hard to expose the issues around food miles. I would not necessarily think it is being duplicated, but I think the reality is not enough is being done by industry to look at this in a whole chain way, and that is why we still have an increase.

Diana Organ

  792. Do you have a meat brand you are trying to push? What consumer interest is there in it, and where do you get it? I have to say, if you go up and down the supermarkets, none of the supermarkets I or my constituents visit—the Co-Op, Safeway, Tesco—have it.
  (Mr Macklin) We are developing it.

  793. So it is not on the shelves yet?
  (Mr Macklin) No. I hope that is helpful to your trolley miles!

  794. Consumer interest at present is nil then?
  (Mr Macklin) No. Consumer interest is high. In the specific case of the National Trust, we are very keen to ensure that the brand credibility is not disrupted by having poor traceability, so we are trying to get the foundations in place first.

  795. In order to do that, do you just have to be a tenant on a National Trust Farm?
  (Mr Macklin) No.

  796. You have put in other requirements?

  (Mr Macklin) Yes. The other requirements are, for example, high enough production standards, because people express most concern about livestock. The proposals are that all tenants supplying with logo endorsement will be either Freedom Food or Organic accredited, and they will also have a farm plan, as we are developing, so that covers the environmental angles. Those are two unique marketing or selling points which make it different from other things, because I do not think it is good enough just to say it is from a National Trust farm.

  797. What percentage of your tenants that are meat producers are interested? Is it nearly all of them, only a few or what? What percentage think this is the way to go with your brand?
  (Mr Macklin) I have not tried to raise expectations, because we are not there yet. We are doing a pilot scheme up in Northumberland. I am going there tomorrow in fact. We have a number of tenants on a large estate who are interested in supplying us, but clearly, they do not want to put all their eggs in one basket and find it does not work, so they are very much playing a waiting game. We put all the investment in and they will see if it works, but that alone is not the whole gambit. We have appointed this month a farm produce marketing advisor, who comes from a very respectable track record, exceptionally good, one of the best in the country, and he is going to help us engage with logistics of supplying tenants' produce to our shops and restaurants, brand endorsement, mail order.

  798. So you will be selling it along with the clothes and the jam in your country houses?
  (Mr Macklin) I do not think Environmental Health will allow us to do that.

  799. Your outlets will be in your other properties?
  (Mr Macklin) We are looking to open properties where it makes most sense to do so, and I would not rule out having franchises with other businesses where it is sensible to do so. We are not looking at just doing one major supermarket chain and that is it. Some organisations forget the point. We are trying to reward those farmers who are working to good levels of husbandry and environmental practice, as witness to their farm plans, which must be active. If they are not following them, we will say, "Sorry, you can't supply us any more." We have to develop a degree of trust, but the food trade is very complicated. Traceability is the number one thing, and that is why we are keen to go over and above the basic standards of assurance. I get plenty of criticism for it, but I think in due course it will actually reap rewards, because we are giving a margin over and above what you would get without the label.

  Chairman: I have to call a halt now. Thank you very much indeed for coming. It has been helpful. Anything you have not said which you regret, it is too late. Anything you want to say and you have not said, you have time to send in to us, and if we have any further thoughts we will let you know. Thank you very much indeed.


 


18   Eating Oil: Food Supply in a changing climate, Sustain 2001. Back

 
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