Lord Bach, Minister for Sustainable Farming, is cautiously optimistic about the future of British agriculture. James Durston reports

Three months into his role as Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, and Lord Bach of Lutterworth is surprisingly calm - although there are a number of reasons why he shouldn’t be.
The problems besetting the farming industry are as obvious as they have ever been. Farmers are reeling at talk of more CAP reform and the UK’s recent accession to the EU Presidency means there is an awful lot of work to be done in the coming six months.
Perhaps Lord Bach’s previous position as Minister of Defence Procurement has toughened him, but it’s more likely his affinity with farmers - he apparently frequents his local pub near Lutterworth in Leicestershire to chat with the local growers - that explains his cautious confidence.
For farmers to have a friendly, down-to-earth and approachable adviser, who can just as easily talk about Leicester City FC as the problems in the beef trade, would certainly do no harm - and the problems faced by beef farmers as a result of the CAP reforms this year are not lost on Lord Bach.
He is working to get rid of the over-thirty-months scheme, which he admits “has affected the beef industry unfairly,” to help ease the pressure. The Food Standards Agency’s recent recommendation that the scheme be lifted should help towards achieving it this autumn.
The dairy industry is another area of focus and Lord Bach is keen to raise standards. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we have a dairy industry in the UK,” he says. “And we already have some excellent dairy farms. Unfortunately, we also have some not-so-good dairy farms, and I would like to up the standards and reward those that comply.”
He acknowledges that Defra’s ability to influence things is limited. “We don’t have the power to fix prices or anything like that, and we don’t have the insider knowledge to do it even if we wanted to, but what we can do is urge members of the chain to work together and for each other.”
Lord Bach will be announcing some of Defra’s new policies on September 21 at the Dairy Event in Warwickshire. Although he is reluctant to give details in advance, he says the policies should ease some of the problems faced by the industry.
Of particular concern for him are the results of the Coleman report, published in July, which showed that the cream of British farmers were joining the rank and file in leaving the industry. “People will always leave industries such as milk production,” he says, “but it’s most worrying that some of those leaving now are the good farmers.”
It is this lack of confidence in the industry, not just a lack of profit, that Lord Bach will be seeking to redress.
He is also keen to tackle the problems faced by the whole supply chain. The relationships, or lack of, between the supermarkets and their suppliers are of particular importance, but are hard to evaluate critically, he says.
“It’s just a fact of life, and when you have that much power, as the multiples do, you are bound to exercise it.
“However, I believe and hope that the supermarkets realise that with that power goes an obligation to deal with suppliers fairly, not only because it’s right, but because it’s the best thing for the supermarkets too.”
This is perhaps the one element of Lord Bach’s remit at Defra that we can expect to see underlined more often than anything else: his emphasis on the industry doing things for itself.
He says: “We need to look at ways to make sure the food chain is more efficient, and that relationships within it are better, without dictating to the industry on precisely how to achieve this.”
Lord Bach supports the National Farmers Union’s proposal for a voluntary buyer’s charter (‘NFU says it will take softly softly approach to only show in town’, The Grocer, August 20, p5), which he says would “bring together the different parts of the chain in a more effective way than the code of practice does at the moment”.
The problem will be getting retailers to volunteer to something that will cost them time and money, without any obvious fiscal benefits.
This industry-driven form of initiative, says Lord Bach, is crucial if problems are to be solved to the satisfaction of all parties. However, he points out that consumers are part of the supply chain too, and it is their demands that drive the multiples’ policies.
“Supermarkets are what people want. They want good quality goods at a reasonable price, and supermarkets have to deliver,” he says.
The growth in organic sales is testament to this, as is the emerging trend for people to look for locally produced goods, he says. “There is a movement now towards locally produced food that supermarkets are taking note of. Farmers’ markets are more popular too, and all this is because consumers are far more discriminating these days.”
Sir Don Curry’s report, which resulted in the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy, underpins much of Lord Bach’s thinking.
He says: “A number of initiatives have stemmed from the Curry Report, where the whole supply chain has been looked at, and some particular sectors have been picked out and looked at specifically.”
Such initiatives include, among others: the Food Chain Centre, the aim of which is to create an efficient UK food chain with an effective flow of information; the Red Meat Industry Forum; and similar initiatives for the cereal and dairy industries.
Lord Bach admits that the problems in the industry are numerous and that there are no easy solutions to any of them, but he appears to be comfortable with his remit.
Citing the problems in the beef industry again, where imports have been under scrutiny recently, he adds: “We have always accepted that we will import food as well as produce it here, firstly because we can’t grow everything, and secondly because we want to export as well.”
He concludes: “British food is as good as any in the world, and I consider one of my main responsibilities to be to make sure we continue to produce good food of a quality that people will want to buy, both here and abroad.”

Lord Bach’s diary
>>Key Dates to remember
September 21
The Dairy Event, Warwickshire
Lord Bach to announce Defra initiatives to reduce the pressure on milk suppliers

September 30
Ministerial Conference of the Rotterdam Convention, Rome
Annual meeting between members of the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation to negotiate and apply safe use of chemicals on farms

November 21
Agriculture Council Meeting on Sugar Reform
Climax of talks on cutting the export subsidies paid to sugar producers, which Prime Minister Tony Blair said would stop European surpluses from being dumped on developing nations’ markets