Bit by bit, it is once more becoming acceptable to argue Britain might not need farmers. What a few decades ago began as a New Right argument against Europe became first a Whitehall scenario but is now a serious Treasury and Cabinet Office policy contender.
If you can buy all-year-round foods cheaper on world markets, or contract and control where land and labour are cheaper, why have British farmers at all?
The Common Agricultural Policy has to go. Fine, but replaced by what?
The entire policy framework, first British then European, which rescued UK farming in the 1940s from its hundred-year decline, is being shed.
Compete on international markets or be consigned to niche markets.
The Curry Commission’s lifeline - modernise, be efficient, re-engage - is being transmogrified into a more definite policy to let farming sink or swim in globalising, fiercely competitive markets.
This economic reality appeals to some but has serious risks that ought to be debated seriously.
The case for dismantling CAP is strong. CAP subsidises rich farmers, raises land values, supports pretty useless commodity regimes (sugar!) and dumps subsidised surpluses on world markets.
The US, still the world’s dominant trader in many commodities, has forged an alliance with emerging exporters such as China and Brazil to bash the CAP. All well and good.
But what about farming here? Do we want it or not? Yes, yes, I can guess what you are thinking. Surely, aren’t big retailers falling over themselves to create - and be seen to create - local lines?
Didn’t Asda win the last BBC Radio 4 Food Award for its 1,500 lines?
And what about Waitrose or north west retailer Booths with their longer-rooted commitment? Haven’t retailers rallied round the weak red tractor system, deservedly criticised last year by the Sustainable Development Commission?
Surely, farming has never had more support from retailers.
My point is that, even if there is a bit of an upturn in UK farm support by retailers, this is far too small to support any decent use of Britain’s still ample landmass.
What are 1,500 out of 10-30,000 lines? Farmers’ markets are currently less than 1%
of food sales. Look what’s happened to poultry. First Thailand, then Brazil could easily sell chicken at less than ‘local’ suppliers’ prices.
The force with which the Blair government has pitched its attacks on the CAP in the recent EU budget negotiations and the push at the G8 talks suggest a chance is being taken.
The running sore of poor African and developing countries adds moral legitimacy but ignores the fact that real farming should be pursued everywhere.
Why? Because awesome structural determinants loom, which will alter market conditions. If we don’t keep a skills pool, then when we need farmers (which we will) the skills won’t be there. The average age of farmers in Britain is now 58 years. The labour force on the land is only half a million, plus 100,000 immigrant labourers, who for their pains are greeted with racism, not gratitude. Land prices bear little relation to food use; more to amenity. Land is sold on a ‘house with a view’ basis.
Are we mad? Soil and land are what feed people! That soil, according to a recent European survey, is, in places, parlous. It needs nurture, not abandoning.
In a world of nine to 10 billion by 2040, what right do we have to use others’ land? Oil is finite, already pushing $60 a barrel. Climate change means our use of southern lands is a new colonialism; likewise our use of their water. I could go on.
Caution please. Drop CAP, fine. But we need farms to feed people.
>>p36 The future of British farming