Monday, 15 January 2018

Method of slaughter labels will help drive improvements in farm animal welfare

Farmwel's proposal for method of slaughter labelling has been welcomed by the UK Government. As The Telegraph recently reported, 'George Eustice, the farming minister, has now given a clear indication that the Government will consider introducing labelling after the UK leaves the European Union.'

Over the last decade there have been various attempts to introduce slaughter labelling both in the United Kingdom and at European level. These attempts have been unsuccessful, partly because they have focussed on the issue of pre-slaughter stunning.

Ongoing debate between critical stakeholders on the science of stunning, and the reasonable fear that a ‘stunned’/‘unstunned’ label may lead to the victimisation of people who support religious slaughter, has led to deadlock. There is also a danger that this form of labelling would create the inaccurate impression that slaughter with pre-stunning is always quick, clean, and humane.

Since 2016, Farmwel and FAI Farms have worked to change the conversation and focus the debate on consumer transparency. Over the last two years we’ve consulted a diverse range of stakeholders, including MPs, members of the House of Lords, senior representatives of the British Veterinary Association and Shechita UK, as well as food and farm animal welfare campaigners.

Following this consultation we have proposed a unique numbered system, which should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK. Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Critically, we believe that a method of slaughter label for all meat products will help drive improvements in welfare for all farm animals at the end of their lives – and importantly, we believe it will be possible to deliver a consensus around this solution.

A method of slaughter label will:
Improve public information, enabling citizens to drive standards
Improve the capacity for retailers and restaurants to respond to consumer preferences
Improve supply and demand relationships between wholesalers and abattoirs

Why is a label necessary?
Public concern about slaughter has increased, but much debate and media coverage has centred on the issue of pre-stunning and has not always been well informed. Method of slaughter labelling would improve consumer choice and help to ensure that retailers and restaurants are better able to respond to consumer preferences.

A simple number system identifying all approved slaughter methods would be objective and helpful in driving welfare outcomes for all farm animals. In our view, labelling should also be underpinned by robust welfare outcome measures focussed on handling, lairage, stunning, and slaughter to help improve and maintain standards. The combination of public information, science, and formalised assurance could improve the end of life outcomes for millions of UK farm animals each week.

Changes to UK labelling laws would have a global impact due to the long supply chains managed by UK retailers and restaurants. We also hope that improvements in UK law would later be replicated overseas.

Halal and Kosher
It’s important that Halal and Kosher customers can accurately identify meat products slaughtered to the appropriate religious standard. Equally it’s important for other citizens to be able to identify meat products which meet their own ethical preferences.

By labelling all meat products by method of slaughter, we will be able to ensure closer correspondence with consumer preferences.

Innovation and pre-slaughter stunning 
Methods of pre-slaughter stunning vary considerably between and within species. There is also a wide variance in each system’s inherent ability to deliver good welfare outcomes at slaughter. For example, if administered correctly the use of a captive bolt for cattle renders an effective stun and immediate loss of consciousness, prior to neck or throat cut. By comparison, the head stunning electric water bath system for poultry requires inversion and live shackling of birds, which they find stressful.  As a result of size variability some birds pass through the system un-stunned prior to the neck cut.

CO2 gas stunning of poultry can create visible aversion for several minutes and therefore has lower welfare outcomes than using inert gas stunning. However, CO2 is cheaper and easier for slaughterhouse operatives to identify and so remains the preferred gas stunning method.

Around 20m birds are killed each week in Great Britain, and according to figures from the FSA’s 2013 survey of UK slaughterhouses, around a quarter of birds were electrically stunned, and well over a half were gassed. We believe that most of these birds would have been gassed using CO2 or a high CO2 mix.

Greater transparency would lead to increased innovation to improve slaughter methods and could help create a market for the most humane slaughter systems.

Underpinned by welfare outcome measures
Farmwel believes that method of slaughter labelling should be underpinned by the use of robust outcome measures (OMs), which can be used to assess and improve welfare. Slaughter OMs should cover lairage, handling, and slaughter.

Currently UK slaughter standards are the responsibility of the operator, although the FSA requires the presence of an Official Vet (OV) to check the slaughter line. Monitoring the point of killing is just one of the OV’s many quality assurance duties, and there is no formal or standardised system for reporting outcomes.

We believe that OMs should be agreed nationally to help index slaughterhouses and compare standards. OVs should spend a fixed proportion of their time at the slaughter line. The informal ‘daybook’ system should be replaced, and an iPad or equivalent device should be used to record and manage information locally and to feed directly into a national data set for analysis and farmer feedback.

Welfare outcome measures will:
Provide the opportunity for consistent national monitoring by the FSA
Help ensure continuous maintenance and improvement of standards
Report consistent kill data back to farmers, informing production practices to reduce losses due to carcass condemnations
Help identify training needs and improve efficiency
Mean that the UK is able to compare itself at a global level
Allow the FSA to index slaughterhouses – providing greater choice for farmers, retailers, religious consumers, and restaurants concerned about welfare at slaughter.

Retailers and restaurants
Slaughter labelling will empower consumers to drive slaughter standards from the market place. It will also mean that retailers and restaurants are better equipped to respond to consumer preferences, which may vary around the UK.

This increased scrutiny will help to ensure that slaughterhouses adopt best practice and focus on good outcomes. Labelling will also mean that sustainability organisations are able to work with retailers and restaurants to overcome supply chain challenges.

In November 2017, Farmwel and FAI made a proposal to Defra that will deliver substantial farm animal welfare improvements, and importantly, will be broadly acceptable to stakeholders.

Part one: A unique numbered system should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK.  Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Numbered alphabetically:
1. Electrical – head only
2. Electrical – head to body
3. Electrical – water bath
4. Gas - CO2
5. Gas - CO2 and inert
6. Gas – Inert
7. Halal
8. Halal – pre-stunned
9. Jewish Shechita
10. Non-penetrative captive bolt
11. Penetrative captive bolt
12. Shot

Part two: Labels should be underpinned by robust welfare outcome-based assessments (metrics).

Method of production labelling
Farmwel believes that mandatory method of slaughter and method of production labels should be introduced together. This would achieve a high level of consumer transparency, providing the chance for consumers to actively support government ambitions for gold standard farm animal welfare.

Mandatory method of production labelling provides a straight-forward opportunity to deliver growth in all higher welfare meat and dairy sectors. By providing consumer choice the market will be able to influence and reward improvements in farm animal welfare. EU method of production labelling of shell eggs has led to more than 50% of UK eggs being produced by cage-free hens. UK method of production labelling of pork has led to nearly half of pigs living in higher welfare systems, with more than a third being assured by RSPCA Freedom Food.


* Farmwel advocates policies to enable a transition to sustainable and accountable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture.  Our goals for secure and sustainable food are supported by other important groups such as the Food Ethics Council.  Our expertise is underpinned by FAI Farms, a globally respected farm consultancy, which helps the food-sector overcome key challenges and implement better farming practices on land and at sea.  FAI works with major retailers (such as M&S) and restaurants (such as McDonalds) to analyse and improve the farm animal welfare and environmental impacts of their supply chains.  

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Gove presents a landmark opportunity to transform agriculture

The environmental and animal welfare movements have called for a green and ethical Brexit. In response, Theresa May has given us a gift-wrapped Michael Gove - a 'disruptor', a free thinker, an intelligent and thoughtful man, ready and able to take on vested interests.  

Despite the cellophane and ribbons there is a remarkable level of mistrust from NGOs towards a man who could not have made his support for a Green Brexit clearer if he had painted himself emerald and howled it from the highest dome of the Eden Project.

Let us be clear - the Conservatives own rural policy in Britain. Conservatives run rural councils. Farmers as an industry vote Conservative, and most of our land mass is owned by Conservative supporters.

It is the Conservatives who have the ready-made mandate to reform agricultural land use, and to deliver the brighter, greener future that Britain's countryside so desperately needs. If they are minded to, the Conservatives can reform from the centre, and expect to command the support of blue-rinsed local authorities on the ground.

If they are prepared to, then Conservatives can take on their voter-base and force through ethical and environmental reform in agriculture, secure in the knowledge that Conservative voters have nowhere else to go - UKIP is a busted flush, and farmers upset with Tory greenery are hardly going to shift to the Lib Dems or Labour (who support a strong green agenda already).

And Mr Gove has said loud and clear that he expects farmers to change.  That in future public payments will be tied to the restoration of our natural capital, and that environmental and welfare standards will be stricter not weaker after Brexit.

As Green Alliance chief executive, Shaun Spiers, said on Twitter today, 'It would be a foolish politician who made promises that he had no intention of keeping.'

So let's take a moment to record Mr Gove's vaunting ambition for the environment, so that in due course we can hold him to account.  

Last Friday, Mr Gove described an 'unfrozen moment' for Britain's environment. 'Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, and therefore how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas. And we can recast our ambition for our country's environment, and the planet. In short it means a Green Brexit.'  

Mr Gove said that Britain should become 'a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition that we inherited it.'

This is precisely what Farmwel has been calling for - a science-based, outcome-centric transformation of these islands, so that Britain becomes a world leader in welfare and environmental quality; an innovator in clean agricultural technologies, in standards, and in techniques to make food production environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable. 

So are environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners happy?  No it seems.  For every pace Mr Gove moves forward, there is a news cycle to take him three steps back. Since Friday there has been a rising tide of concern over the totemic issue of chlorinated chicken.  So, today Mr Gove has been explicit: 'We are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal.'

It's time to give the man a break. The government is already planning to move ahead on CCTV in abattoirs, it is considering a ban on live animal export, and it has recognised the desperate state of our nation's soil (which has lost 84% of its fertility since 1850).

Mr Gove has also made the case for public money for public goods.  He has said, 'I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many years to come.  But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.'

Mr Gove is promising radical reform of agricultural land use - the Green Brexit we've called for - and he's using language that NGOs could have written themselves.

So will he deliver?  Time will tell. We should be sceptical. With the best will in the world there is no doubt that Mr Gove will face the ire of powerful vested interests at every turn.  Politics is a process where ambition is routinely disappointed by compromise. But if there was ever a modern Conservative politician with the spleen to face the corporate, agro-chemical dragons - and to win - it's Michael Gove.

So now its time for green NGOs to move on.  The stage is set.  Promises have been made.  Our duty now is to work with government and help it deliver.  To demonstrate the public appetite for change.  To help identify the processes by which reform can be delivered, and the environmental and farm animal welfare outcomes and outcome measurements that will be needed to monitor reform on the ground.

If we get it right, then 10 years from now we will have a thriving food industry, with ethical, environmental, and economic sustainability embedded at its heart.

We have a responsibility to be part of that change.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Creating a big conversation in the countryside

Look, it's possible that I'm just a grumpy old man. (My wife and kids would no doubt provide damning character witnesses). But when I go out into the countryside I often come back feeling just a little bit cross.  

I grumble about flailed hedgerows, and I sound off about dumped machinery and broken stiles. I get frustrated when access is obstructed, and when I'm told to keep my dog on a lead instead of under control. I get upset about chemicals sprayed on the soil, wildflower verges mowed at their peak, and water courses lost to the plough.

I could go on - no really, don't get me started... but, when I talk to other people, I find that many of my concerns are shared.

In my last blog I noted the immense good that farmers do in shaping our landscape, even while acknowledging the harm that has been done to our natural capital by decades of bad land use policy and poorly directed farm payments. I also noted that most people, much as they support the idea of British agriculture, think that farm subsidies are spent on flashy trucks and quad bikes.

I wrote about the structural deficit between farm gate and retail prices; between natural assets plundered and those we need to survive. But there is another deficit, and this one is social.  

There is a gulf of understanding and expectation between the average person and the average farmer. Between those who eat healthy meals and the farmers who supply volume products for discount retailers. Between the joyful lives of the fluffy animals we see on CBeebies and Countryfile, and the millions forced into cages on intensive farms. Between those who use the countryside for pleasure, and those who work the land day-in-day-out.

And this deficit works both ways.

When we leave the European Union the government should guarantee ongoing payments for the next generation of farmers. But farmers need to actively engage the taxpaying public in order to make the case for that new deal. 

They need demonstrate the good that they do, explain some of the decisions that they make, and start to show an understanding of the needs and concerns of the great British public that supports them.

In other words, we need a big conversation in the countryside between farmers and other countryside users. Farmers need to make the case for ongoing taxpayer support, and start working to find compromises to ensure that Britain's countryside works for everyone.

Creating a big conversation
A decade or so back I was general secretary of the National Farmers' Union on the Isle of Man. At that time Manx farming had some major challenges.  Imports threatened home production, and the cost of export across the Irish Sea was high.

Unfortunately, public support was also at an all time low, and we needed urgently to turn the tide of public opinion. So, together with Isle of Man Government, we initiated a campaign to transform attitudes to Manx food and farming.

Throughout this campaign we actively managed conversations between farmers and other countryside users, and within eighteen months food and farming had once again become a jewel in the Isle of Man's crown.   

Under the surface, we found that there was still an enormous amount of goodwill towards Manx agriculture, but for too long it had been taken for granted. High immigration levels from England and Ireland also meant that fewer people had a direct family link to the island. With this in mind, we got out there, made the case for Manx food and farming, and found that people enthusiastically flocked back in support of home production. We championed Manx meat and dairy, bread and flour, veges, herbs, honey and mushrooms. If you wanted to, you could fill your basket with island-produced food.

In the first year of the campaign there were around 200 separate events either hosted or inspired by us in support of Manx farming. We hosted cream teas on farms for ramblers, and visited environmental groups to give talks. Farmers hosted heritage, nature, and bird watching tours on their farms. We put on a bonfire night extravaganza you could probably have seen from space. And we organised a Christmas carol service in a cow shed, with a silver band and mince pies, led by the Bishop, with readings by farmers and a government minister, which was attended by more than 300 people.

We also saturated the Isle of Man's media (of which there is a surprising amount) with positive food and farming stories. Before the campaign began nearly every press mention of Manx farming was negative, but right from the start of our project that changed completely. In addition, I wrote columns in newspapers and magazines, commentated regularly on the radio, and produced two series of the Manx Food Show for the island's public service radio station.

In this way we built understanding. We restored trust and mutual respect. We brought sometimes opposing interests together in a room (or a barn) and humanised concerns and abstract conflicts. And we created a larger, more positive market for Manx farmers, because more people knew at least a little of the challenges and hardships associated with food production in the beautiful but rugged, wind-blown landscape of the Isle of Man.

This campaign was run a decade ago on a big rock in the Irish Sea.  But we could do much worse than to replicate it here and now before the UK leaves the European Union. 

Although the UK is much bigger, it is still made up of distinct areas and regions, each with a distinct character, each with a lots of people passionate about where they live, and each with a local media keen to support local events.

In Britain, the nearest relation is Open Farm Sunday. This is a great start, but it doesn't do nearly enough. Most of the OFS events that I've been to have been full of people who already support British farming. We need events that actively manage conversations between farmers and conservationists; environmentalists; heritage enthusiasts; welfare groups; or footpath users.  Events that record opinions and face up to challenges, that engender understanding and foster compromise.

In my view, a direct and managed conversation is critical, particularly for farmers seeking to justify continued public payments; particularly for farmers who will need the support of British citizens and consumers when the UK leaves the single market. 

We need a big conversation in the countryside, and we could do much worse than follow the Isle of Man's example.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A blueprint for public trust and accountability

Our countryside costs 13 pence per citizen per day. That's astonishing. It's hard to think of anything I value that costs me less.  

Not only do farmers produce food, they manage nearly 3/4 of these islands for the paltry cost to the taxpayer of less than £1 per citizen per week (£48 per year).

CPRE recently noted, in New Model Farming, that 'farming is not an ordinary industry.' It produces food direct for market, it provides the raw materials for the nation's £100bn food and drink sector, and it maintains the patchwork and character of our landscape, 'Farming is vital to communities, to public health and well-being.' 'Vital too is the green space it provides for recreation, recuperation, and inspiration.'

And yet, many farmers feel that they're heading for the edge of a cliff. Despite a majority of farmers voting to leave the European Union, producers fear the end of the financial support they rely on to supplement the distorted market that the CAP has created. A significant structural deficit now exists between the real cost of food and the price paid by consumers.

Farming needs a new deal. But, so too does the national community it serves.

While support for British farming is reasonably high, most people see farm payments as a subsidy for the next flash Land Rover. Most people don't know that for many farms the basic farm payment is the difference between existence and bankruptcy. It's no coincidence that on average one farmer commits suicide every week.

So, let's put this financial support into context. Forty eight quid is the same as it costs to join the RSPB (£48/year), and rather less than membership of the National Trust (£64.80).  

In terms of government spending agriculture is right at the bottom of the league table. In fact, just the cost of administrating central government is £185 per citizen per year. Based on the same analysis (with UK population calculated at 65m), we spend £2,138 per citizen per year on health (£139bn/year), £1,292 each on education (£84bn), £569 on defence (£37bn), £461 on public safety and police (£30bn), £169 on culture (11bn) - and then, right at the bottom, we spend £48 on agriculture (£3.1bn).

And yet, farmers deliver some of the most extraordinary countryside anywhere in the world - our grass lands, hill sides, tree belts, river banks, and hedgerows. The vast sweeping expanses of the Cambridgeshire fens, the drama of the Lake District, the rocky expanses of Snowdonia, the marshy splendour of the Scottish glens, and the rugged coastlines all around our unique islands.

Sadly however, our countryside is in dramatic decline. The 2016 State of Nature report recorded that over the last 50 years, 56% of species have declined, while 15% are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether. In 2014, scientists warned that there were only 100 harvests left in our farm soils. In addition, we must transform our food systems to cut carbon, methane, and nitrogen pollution, improve food quality and reduce obesity, protect communities from extreme weather by re-shaping our agricultural landscape, and improve welfare and reduce anti-microbial resistance by getting farm animals out of intensive systems.

So there is another serious structural deficit. This time between the natural assets we are plundering, and the assets that we need to survive.

We are paying rock bottom rates for the management of our countryside, and when you scratch the surface, it shows - farms are close to the edge of economic viability - and the quality of our natural assets is in free fall.  While there are remarkable pockets of ethical and environmental excellence, much of mainstream farming policy and practice is driving itself and nature towards an unprecedented precipice.  

Farmers fear that public payments will be culled, but instead we must reform them, and commit to paying them for the next generation. For decades public policy has pushed farming to drive nature to perilous tipping points, and so government must now take brave and bold decisions, and motivate farmers to restore the countryside so that it will continue to feed everyone forever.

We need a new deal for agriculture. One that maintains the critical safety net for farm businesses for the next generation, but one which has public interest and accountability at its heart. One which supports farmers, but which avoids market distortion, and which empowers consumers to reward high quality, higher welfare, sustainable food.

Fortunately, we have a historic opportunity to arrest the decline in our soils, air quality, biodiversity, welfare standards, and water quality. To put our farmers on a sound financial footing for the future. To ensure our natural capital is restored and maintained for the public good. To pay off the rising debt to nature, reducing risk thresholds, and ensuring rich and robust food systems for the future.

A new deal for agriculture
Last week Farmwel published its blueprint for agricultural land use and food production, in which we describe a process of de-centralisation that would lead to greater public trust, and accountability on the ground.

When we leave the European Union public funds should be re-directed to pay for public goods and environmental services to help preserve and restore Britain’s natural capital.

To achieve this, the current system of farm payments should be axed and replaced by a new farm contract, directed and supported by regional stakeholders and local citizens.

We are calling for:
- A national policy framework based on environmental, ethical, and economic sustainability
- A regional mechanism to agree local priorities with countryside stakeholders
- Individual farm contracts assessed by private schemes, which are published online so that ordinary people can contribute to monitoring.

This blueprint provides the bare bones of the new deal that citizens and farmers so desperately need.  It will help restore and maintain our natural capital.  And it will help guarantee public support for the next generation of farmers.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Agriculture is a public service, it should be more accountable

Brexit gives us the chance to transform British food production into a sustainable and richly-valued public service in which citizens have a real stake.  It's time for a conversation about how accountability and active localism can play a role in agriculture.  

Food production in the UK depends on taxpayer funding and is delivered against a framework of responsibilities agreed with Defra. To put it plainly, farmers are working on a government contract to produce food and manage the landscape. But, unlike other public services, agriculture is almost entirely unaccountable to citizens. 

Most public services go out of their way to demonstrate value for money through public engagement and participation in their strategic processes. Schools have governors and Parent Teacher Associations, hospitals have patient panels, and the police have Safer Neighbourhood Panels. You can also complain easily and expect to be taken seriously.

It is a bizarre quirk of history that has excluded the public from having a say on land use. 

We pay producers £3bn a year (the average farmer receives £28,300versus £2,100 from selling food) to manage nearly three-quarters of our land. Yet the public is excluded from decisions about the way their countryside looks, and people can't complain unless there's visible law breaking. Not only that, but the relationship between many individual farmers and countryside users is poor because of long-standing antipathy, which means that many people are mistrustful of farmers and resent the payments that producers receive.

It's time that British farming started to behave like the public service it is, actively reaching out to citizens to involve them in regional and local farm management plans. Then, rather than worrying about the incremental loss of the Single Farm Payment, farmers would be able to make a substantial, logical defence for continued, or even increased, financial support from taxpayers.  

To deliver this, production-based farm payments should be replaced with payments for public goods and environmental services - but local people should also be able to contribute to local and regional food security and sustainability policy. This would help develop mutual trust and understanding, and ensure that farmers manage the land in accordance with the principles of ethical, environmental, and economic sustainability. If farming, as an industry, sequestered carbon, managed flood water effectively, improved soil quality and biodiversity, improved access, and treated farm animals more humanely, then the case for continued public payments would be simple.

Farmwel believes that when we leave the EU, the system for farm payments should be axed and replaced by a new farm contract, directed and supported by regional stakeholders and local citizens.

Evidence suggests that the re-balancing of this relationship is long overdue. R
ecent polling shows that 98% of Britons say that it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals, and 76% say they should be better protected than they are now. 72% would be prepared to pay more for higher welfare products, and 83% want mandatory method of production labelling for all meat and dairy products. On the environment, 83% of citizens want new laws providing better or the same levels of protection for wild areas and wildlife as current EU laws, and 88% support a continued ban on neonicotinoids, which pose a threat to honey bees. 

The public has strong opinions on sustainability and land management. They also have views on public spending and value for money.  

Good, healthy food should be rewarded by the market, while public goods are financed by the taxpayer. Public payments should be provided through transparent contracts and farm management plans that are published on-line, and citizens should be taken seriously if they complain about standards falling short of expectations.  

There is little doubt that a thriving farming industry is the best and most cost effective way to manage the countryside - but citizens and user groups should now be given a real stake.  In this way, farming can reinvent itself as a sustainable, richly-valued, and well-funded public service.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

It's time to scrap production-related farm payments

Farmwel recently provided evidence to the House of Lords, Brexit: agriculture inquiry.  Central to our submission was our call to change the basis of UK farm payments.

Public payments provide essential support for farming at a time when farm-gate prices are brutally removed from the true costs of production.  But the public are paying for the wrong things.

Acreage payments should continue, but they should be used to protect wildlife, environment, farm animals, and biodiversity - not to fund production.

Each day this winter I've walked past a water-logged 20-acre field which grazes 40 ewes.  In the summertime the field is usually topped for silage.  There's no rotation.  On two sides there are patchy hedges that have just been savagely cut to chest height.  To all intents and purposes, this is a grass monoculture of very little real value.  This needs to change.

Farm payments should fund eco-services.  We should leave the natural laws of supply and demand to reward food production at appropriate levels, and instead public payments should fund public goods, like biodiversity management, greenhouse gas reduction, flood protection, and farm animal welfare - things the market has no means of rewarding.

In this way, my neighbour would be paid to set up land sharing on his farm.  We'd see the same levels of food production (if the market existed) - but there'd be outstanding outcomes for nature and farm animal welfare.  Instead of a mono-culture, imagine a paddock grazing system, perhaps with additional hedging to help paddock separation, to improve land productivity, and carbon sequestration.  Trees could be planted at the centre and at the edges, and irrigation could be introduced to collect and preserve rain water to improve land resilience during long dry periods.  Additional flora would provide the sheep with shelter from storms and hot sun, and water management would help reduce the potential for parasites such as fluke.  Grass and soil quality, biodiversity, carbon capture, water management, and farm animal health and welfare outcomes would all improve.

This should be the model for all farming - and Brexit offers the chance to make it happen in Britain; to lock in long term food security, built on a bedrock of environmental, economic, and ethical sustainability.  The Great Repeal Bill should transfer EU laws to Britain, retaining key farm animal welfare and environmental protections - but, alongside this, a Food Security and Sustainability Bill should be introduced, with payments reform at its centre.

Acreage payments should be maintained, but the ‘Greening’ portion of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should be abolished.  Instead, environmental and ethical requirements should become the basis of all acreage payments.  These should be dependent on the delivery of public goods.  The use of land to produce food would be strongly preferred, but not required – meaning that food production itself would become more dependent on the market.  Land used for the production of food that failed to meet the required environmental and ethical outcomes would not receive public support.

Acreage payments were introduced in 2003 so that farmers had more freedom to respond to market demands, but farmers are only eligible for these payments if their land is kept in agricultural production.  There's a strong argument that these production payments are incompatible with WTO rules.  By contrast, the acreage payments Farmwel has proposed, based on ethical and environmental outcomes, would be wholly compatible with WTO Green Box rules.

The Farmwel project is informed by the experience of FAI Farms.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Trade ambitions must not threaten our long term food security

Brexit offers an unprecedented opportunity to redesign UK food systems, and the relationship between farmers and consumers, the food industry, landscape, and nature itself.

If we're brave then we'll develop policy and support systems that guarantee our long term food security, built on a bedrock of environmental, economic, and ethical sustainability.

If we're cowed by the scale of the challenge, then we run the risk of replacing the democratic frustrations of the European Union with a dependence on the tempestuous moods of the global free market.

Today the Prime Minister provided more detail on her vision for leaving the EU. Theresa May confirmed her intention to take Britain out of the Single Market and to manage immigration solely in the interests of the UK.

There are benefits to ending the existing free market in labour. Cutting off a ready supply of low paid immigrant farm workers is no doubt a challenge, but it offers a chance to persuade supermarkets (and through them consumers) to start paying a more realistic price for food. If the cost at the checkout more accurately reflected the costs of production, then this might lead to better pay and conditions for farm workers - and to jobs that more British people are prepared to turn up to do.

Mrs May also made it clear that she wants Britain to become a champion of global free trade. Here be dragons. Challenging barriers to trade and trimming the fat off regulation makes sense - where possible, and where it is in our best interests. But we need to be very clear about the important role that good legislation plays in protecting our long term food security.

Legislative frameworks not only protect workers and the natural world - they play a critical role in creating investor confidence and ensuring long term policy delivery.  Recent changes to energy subsidies pulled the rug out from under the UK solar sector, an important income stream for many farmers. The uncertainty around renewables has larger economic implications too. Just this week IKEA announced that it would not be investing the half a billion pounds it had planned to spend on green energy in the UK because the investment environment was too uncertain.

When we leave the EU we should replace European policy with British laws that deliver freedom for farmers to innovate and respond to the honest demands of the market place, with labels that allow direct conversations between consumers and producers, and with financial incentives that reflect the innate value of good animal welfare, landscape management, and improved biodiversity.

The current race to the bottom, in terms of ever greater levels of production for ever less money, is quite simply heading for a crash.  There are signs of strain across the industry, but particularly in the plight of the dairy sector, which is competing in a volatile global market place.  The future for British farmers must be in developing quality products for defined and discerning markets both at home and abroad.

Post-Brexit policy should set a solid trajectory for British farming to become truly sustainable. Within a decade consumers should be paying for food directly at the checkout, while their tax pounds are used to reward public goods that the market is much less able to recognise, such as flood prevention and soil improvement.

And then there's climate change.  The government's focus on global trade, must not be at the expense of domestic stability and growth in the number of small and medium-size farm businesses.  It is these smaller, more flexible businesses that will help protect us from the health and security impacts of a warmer world.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclusions showed that +2C by 2046 is nearly inevitable, and that +4C is possible.  The UK climate expert, Professor Kevin Anderson, has said that a +4C future is incompatible with an organised global community, and is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’.

Farms have an extremely important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas pollution and improving the land's capacity to sequester carbon. But some warming is inevitable, and if Prof. Anderson is right about the rate of change then we may find that by having too many eggs in the global trade basket our food economy and security is at greater risk.  Climate change is a threat multiplier - it makes economic instability, conflict, disease migration, and disrupted transport routes more likely.  A heavy dependence on trade with the rest of the world increases these risks still further.

At the same time, our own harvests will become more vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.  To mitigate and reduce these impacts, so that our own food security is strengthened, we must redesign our farmed landscape so that our soil quality and biodiversity is better recruited for our own community protection.

Leaving the EU means that Britain has a chance to choose its own destiny - but we must make our plans based on the likely challenges of a world twenty years from now.

A rush to embrace the global free market, in the belief that the grass on the other side of the planet is greener, runs the risk of transferring our decision-making ability from a frying pan and into a fire.