Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Farmers voice food supply concern

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Tractor in a field
Farmers fear the UK is not prepared for global uncertainty in food supplies

The Oxford Farming Conference is one of the fixed points of the farming calendar.

Now in its 63rd year, it attracts speakers from around the world and many of the movers and shakers in the agricultural industry.

Hundreds of people crammed into this year's traditional pre-conference dinner.

Usually people end up talking about the fallout from yet another animal disease or what they see as the injustice of European farming payments.

But this year over the smoked salmon, roast beef and British cheese, the conversations are varied.

Many, like National Farmers' Union President Peter Kendall, are concerned about food security and the volatile prices of last year.

Peter Kendall
Growing our own food is not only sound food policy - it makes sense in an economic downturn
Peter Kendall
President, National Farmers' Union

"I think there are some dramatic lessons to be learned from last year," he says.

"Of course, we saw prices shoot up, but it was the reaction around the world - 42 countries bringing in protectionist measures, saying: 'We're going to feed our people first'.

"So, although we might think we can import ourselves out of food crisis, I believe that growing our own food is not only sound food policy, it makes sense in an economic downturn."

Of course, it could be argued that food security is a positive issue for British agriculture. If more people want more food then farmers, at least, will not be going hungry.

But the view that the UK is not preparing adequately for increasingly uncertain global food supplies is one that is shared by many experts in food policy - as well as farmers, like Guy Smith, from Essex.

'Lost the plot'

"Recently we were sent a brochure from Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], in which they set out their food security policy," he says.

"As far as I could see, the strategy was to develop overseas agriculture and maintain lines of trade. Now that's all very well, but is it secure?

"You have to take a leap in the dark and decide whether countries will stay stable or trade lines will stay open. As a simple Essex peasant, I believe it makes sense to source most of it from your own doorstep."

Other farmers go further - privately - and say that Defra has, as they put it, lost the plot.

They say ministers and civil servants are so keen not to be seen as the Ministry for Agriculture that they make conservation an overwhelming priority when the public want the cheap food that conventional farming could supply.

A lot of people are being encouraged to take out allotments or grow their own
Teresa Whickham
Conference chairman

With a rapidly falling pound, they say, it is mad to base a policy on imports while presiding over dwindling British self-sufficiency.

Another issue that's needling the English delegates is what they see as a increasingly unlevel playing field within the UK.

Agriculture is one policy area where the Scottish and Welsh administrations have seized the considerable powers devolved to them to the extent that, in some areas, English farmers find themselves significantly worse off than their colleagues in other parts of Britain.

"The SNP government has six ministers and half of them represent rural constituencies, including the First Minister, Alex Salmond, who represents one of the most agriculturally dependent constituencies in Scotland", says Richard Lochead, the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment in the Scottish government.

'Great opportunity'

"For that reason we're very aware of the value of Scottish farmers and the contribution they make to the economy."

After a couple of glasses of wine, farmers here will admit they are an industry prone to whingeing and, compared with the dark days of foot and mouth or BSE, there are many opportunities for the future.

"A lot of people are being encouraged to take out allotments or grow their own," says Teresa Whickham, chairman of this year's conference and someone with more than 20 years' experience of advising supermarkets on food and consumer issues.

"These people will be engaged. They will also want to buy their own from British soil and that will be a great opportunity for farmers, despite the credit crunch."

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