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


Memorandum submitted by The Family Farmers' Association (A7)

  Although numerically fairly small, this Association is almost the only organisation in Britain which works to promote the smaller family farm. We believe a high proportion of the population agrees with us that farming is essential to the fabric and character of Britain. We believe many people share our concern that the trend to ever more industrialised food production will have far reaching consequences and diminish the quality of life of most citizens. This is already starting to happen. When the process gets out of control and the consequences become so unpleasant as to prompt serious remedial action it will be too late to stop it. The widespread effects of the Foot and Mouth epidemic have highlighted the importance of farming to a great many aspects of community life.

  We therefore submit this memorandum for your consideration.

  It is difficult to address your terms of reference exactly. Before discussing how to cope with a problem, one must decide on the objectives. In this case, the question is a stark one: should Britain continue to be farmed, or should mainstream farming be abandoned, leaving the majority of the land to revert to a state of nature, with a few farms remaining to produce speciality foods for niche markets?

  There is a fundamental confusion as to what is expected of agriculture. On the one hand it is to be "sustainable" above all else. This word is now used in many senses, often embracing the concept of "multifunctionality". This cumbersome word is shorthand for all the good things that the right kind of farming does. What is often not realised is that sustainability must also mean that farming itself can be sustained; that it will not be allowed to wither away.

  On the other hand Government, and some economists, tell us that food production is no longer important. The implication is that if we cannot compete with (often subsidised) food brought in from other parts of the world, where conditions enable it to be produced much more cheaply, we should not be trying to farm here. We are told that we must "produce for the market". What market? Global traders control the "market" for most commodities and ensure that prices are kept to a level far below our costs of production. There is, of course, a "market" for speciality or niche products, but it is, almost by definition, limited. Most of the population buy what is on supermarket shelves at the lowest price. Mass caterers, such as schools, hospitals and forces also buy mainly on price, ie they do not buy British produced food unless pressed to do so.

  The fact has to be faced that, if some means of supporting British farming is not applied, there will soon be very much less of it. It has been suggested that if only farms became large enough they could produce at world prices with little or no subsidising. This is by no means a certainty. How much farming would survive, and for how long, there is absolutely no means of foretelling, it will depend on so many unknown factors. Just now the large farmers are busy swallowing up the small farmers. If, as is quite possible, the large farmers go bust, no farmers will then remain.

  The areas least likely to survive, if prices are low and subsidies minimal, are all the pastoral regions. They are already suffering from severe depression due to the low price of milk. Because of this many farmers have quit dairying and are trying to make a living from other forms of livestock production, ie beef and sheep. The abundance of meat on the world market has depressed prices to a level where the only profit comes from subsidies paid, which is a patently ridiculous—and unsustainable—situation.

  Areas where stock has been removed by Foot and Mouth are demonstrating how fast land deteriorates as soon as it is unstocked. Some wildlife may flourish in abandoned countryside, but it is likely to be much less enjoyable for tourists. Many subsidiary rural businesses, which cater for farmers when they are prosperous, will find their trade much diminished if there are very few farmers left. In areas where farming forms a significant part of the economy, unemployment and general deprivation will become a problem and expensive ameliorating measures will be needed.

  We cannot believe it is really necessary to explain in great detail all the environmental and social consequences that will ensue if farming is allowed to wither away. It cannot just be assumed that the countryside will always be there, no matter how unprofitable farming is. It won't. At least not in recognisable form.

  The other important aspect of British agriculture is the matter of food security. This does not seem to cause much concern in official quarters, but it worries many ordinary citizens. Some 66 per cent. of all our food needs are still supplied from home production, and 79 per cent of temperate foods. This could quite easily dwindle to a much smaller proportion, even in the space of a few years. Nobody really knows how long farmers are prepared to live on an almost non-existent income in the hope that things will improve. If profitability does not improve a point might be reached where a large number gave up the struggle to survive all at once. With many farmers near retiring age, and without successors to their farms, there could be a sudden exodus. Studies are already showing that many farmers' children do not want to take on the struggle.

  No farmers, no home produced food. With the world in such a precarious state, is it really wise to abandon our ability to produce at least a fair proportion of our own food? Who knows what natural or unnatural calamity might interfere with the world food trade. Even without any calamity, it seems quite possible that, if we depended on the world traders for nearly all our nourishment, they just might get together and reorganise pricing so that we had to pay dearly for our daily bread. What would this do to our balance of payments?

  Therefore we submit that it is absolutely essential that Britain continue to produce food; that the process must sustain the welfare of animals, humans and the countryside as a whole; that the safest and most sustainable pattern is to have a good mix of farm sizes; that profitability must be such that young people are able to set up in a modest way and achieve a comfortable living in due course.

  If this is agreed, the question becomes how is this to be achieved in the face of the many pressures which are threatening the very existence of farming?

  First a few non solutions:

  Diversification is mainly for those already in a strong position, with energy and capital to spare, although it has worked for some.

  Niche or speciality markets are an excellent idea for those with a flair for novel activities. But the demand for the products is limited, almost by definition. A competent farmer is not necessarily a competent marketer.

  Co-operating is another good idea, but is by no means always successful. It has a bad track record. The government has destroyed all efforts at co-operative milk selling on a worthwhile scale. Experience in other countries has shown that large and efficient co-ops are not necessarily farmer friendly.

  Restructuring is a permanent and on-going process. The aim of this paper is to suggest that it is also undesirable. If the process accelerates the result could be the decimation of farming as we know it.

  Training is likely to be of much greater benefit to those engaged in doing the training than to farmers. What farmers need is an effective advisory or extension service as used to be provided free by ADAS, and before that by the NAAS. The US government has a comprehensive network offering advice to farmers. Our government experimental farms used to test and demonstrate practical husbandry and new ideas. (I know from personal experience that these were really helpful).

  Solutions are not easy to find, but here are some practical suggestions:

  See previous paragraph for a start.

  Better stewardship of agricultural land is fairly simple to promote. If proper stewardship of land leads to greater profitability, farmers will embrace it willingly. The Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme and Countryside Stewardship could well be combined. They should be open to all farms with suitable habitats. Ways of administering them more economically must be devised, so that a bigger proportion of their cost actually reaches farmers, to add to their income. Advice on conservation should be readily available and truly free.

  Farms which are not suitable for Stewardship should be offered a menu of virtuous activities which would earn them extra subsidies. These could include such things as caring for, or creating natural habitats and vernacular buildings, and also having small fields with wildlife friendly boundaries. It should be possible to devise fairly simple forms of administering such finance through the IACS system. If "whole farm" plans are insisted upon, policing and administering will be much more complicated. Piecemeal schemes may not be so glamorous, but they would be much more farmer friendly and therefore more readily adopted; also easier to administer.

  Widening and increasing grants and subsidies for environmental work would obviously require funding and there are two feasible sources for this. If they are organised so that most farmers are able to access them in one form or another, it will be more acceptable gradually to transfer some funding from area or headage payments. (The latter can most simply be transferred by increasing extensification payments. Beetle banks and perhaps tree planting would be suitable subsidy earners for arable farms).

  The other way is modulation. But it is essential to go back to the original meaning of modulation. That was tapering payments so that as areas of land or numbers of stock increased, the rate of subsidy paid reduced. That is, there would be a basic payment for the first tranche of hectares or animals, but each succeeding 100 or so would have a reduction in payment. Possibly with a cut off point.

  There is already a precedent for this in the new Hill Farming Allowance. France has a fairly sophisticated system whereby the amount of subsidy received depends on the size of enterprise, the number of people it supports, and the degree of conservation on the farm. Various people are starting to suggest that cutting the subsidies of small farmers is not desirable. It is high time an effort was made to work out a fairer system of rewards than the present one. To give large amounts of taxpayers' money to very large farmers is only sensible if you want to encourage large farmers to get even larger. We have attempted to show earlier in this paper that it is not really beneficial to have ever fewer and larger farmers.

  The suggestion that "modulation" should consist of cutting all farmers' subsidies by 20 per cent would appear to be encouraging the demise of another significant section of farmers—all those who are now marginal.

  There is another matter which we believe to be very important, although it does not come within your terms of reference. The average age of farmers is said to be 58—therefore there must be many over this age. There are reported to be many tenant farmers who are in such financial difficulty that they cannot afford to retire. There are probably also many owner occupiers so heavily mortgaged as to make it difficult for them to get out. There are also, in spite of all the difficulties, a number of young people keen to farm who have not the wherewithal to get started. It has long been the policy of this Association that there should be help for new entrants, and that this could very usefully be linked to an early retirement scheme.

  Most other European states have schemes to help new entrants, with a combination of grants and subsidised loans. Surely it must be beneficial to get younger people into farming. They should be full of energy and keen to take up any modern ideas which will help them to make a profit from food production.

  A financial package should be devised which will enable unprofitable farmers to retire with a pension, provided their land passes to a new entrant. In the case of very small farms we would accept that there may need to be some amalgamation. But the object is to reduce the number of farms which are effectively destroyed as soon as they are sold. This often happens as they are lotted, to achieve the highest possible total price. The result is often that the house is bought by a prosperous person seeking to move to the country, the barns are developed, most often into holiday complexes if it is a tourist area, and the land is added to another farm. This may improve the viability of that farm, but the buyer may not take on the appropriate labour to care for the new land, but only buy some bigger cultivating machinery. This can result in more neglected land or animals—or an excessive burden of work on the farmer.

  How to cope with the WTO's aspirations is an enormous subject which could double the length of this paper, so we will deal with it fairly summarily, although it is the greatest single source of farming's difficulties, probably world wide. The absolute essential is not to allow ourselves to be dominated, even ruined, by a consortium of world traders who appear, at the moment, to have the peoples of the whole world at their mercy.

  It is hard to see why it should not be illegal to offer for sale in Britain any food which does not conform to British legal standards. If the regulations governing our food production are important, consumers surely have the right to know that all food offered to them conforms to these standards of safety, hygiene and welfare, wherever it comes from?

  It seems ridiculous that it should be possible to import, and offer for consumption, food produced in ways that are illegal here. Also we should not be expected to take in food which is priced so low as to destroy our own capacity to produce it, which is what is happening with beef at the moment quite obviously, and to a lesser extent with many other products.

  However, we have equally no right to dump on world markets food which is subsidised either on production or on export. Therefore it is essential that quotas and other forms of production control—better described as supply management—be retained. Hopefully, a transition to more environmentally friendly farming, and perhaps an increase in organics, will gradually reduce surpluses. It is even possible that, if it were easier to make a living, some farmers, at least, would not feel such a necessity to half kill themselves producing maximum quantities.

  The trouble with quotas is not their existence, but their administration. The only people who can afford to buy more quota are those who already have plenty. Means must be found of moving it from those who no longer need it to where it is genuinely needed. Siphons on sales, and possibly on leasing also, would help with this. If milk quota were abolished that would spell the end of another large group of pastoral farmers. What should their land then be used for?

  We realise that many people truly believe that liberalisation of world trade brings increased world prosperity, but would respectfully suggest that the evidence against this theory is building up. Be that as it may, there can, surely be little doubt that bringing food within the jurisdiction of GATT has led to enormous difficulties, worldwide as well as here. By reducing our profitability it has greatly increased the need for subsidies to keep farming alive.

  We can only hope that eventually sanity will prevail and it will be realised that, at least for food, a complete free for all in its trade could prove disastrous in more or less every field—the welfare of animals, farmers and the countryside. Food is bulky stuff, and another aspect of its free trade is the global warming caused by carting large quantities to and fro across the world. Every possible effort must be made to see that the WTO does not put an end to farming in Britain.

Family Farmers' Association Committee

9 December 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 6 November 2002