By Rhodri Elfyn Jones
It was New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra who apparently said “It’s like déjà vu all over again”. But it was also how I felt reading the Welsh Government’s Agriculture White Paper only a few short weeks after England’s attempt at setting out its own farming future.
Once again, failing to link agriculture and food – particularly the food market – has led to a one-dimensional approach which will shackle farmers to support payments and perpetuate a broken market. The White Paper mentions supply chains and economic resilience – as it seems all policies must these days – but the content does not fill me with confidence that the Welsh Government really wants to get to grips with the issue. Its intentions have been clear now for several years but we are embarking on yet another consultation period without the slightest idea of how the oft-mentioned public goods are to be valued. It therefore remains difficult to evaluate the likely effectiveness of the proposed scheme.
It seems the recent report from Bangor University (which fed into Hybu Cig Cymru’s “The Welsh Way” document) which showed that Welsh farms produce the most sustainable red meat in the world has come as something of an inconvenient truth to the Welsh Government. The policy would see such farms reduce production in favour of delivering as-yet unconfirmed public goods. The consequence would, of course, be that less sustainable meat would take the place of Welsh produce. A climate own goal as well as being a complete failure to shift agriculture away from public funding.
Farming is realising that it is on the cusp of significant change and many farming groups are now presenting their own take on changes required. For example, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission have recently published Farming for Change. It would be a great shame if many of the great ideas being discussed by the farming community were ignored in favour of an office-based idea of sustainability.
Just as with its English counterpart the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS), the overwhelming focus is on sustainability, but a very narrow interpretation of it, I fear. The intentions behind the new policy are, no doubt, sincere and in the main very worthwhile. However, it wastes an opportunity to create a wide-ranging transformative policy for agriculture, environment and, importantly, food. It’s concerning to see the Minister in her foreword saying that “A separate approach is proposed to provide wider (‘beyond the farm gate’) support for supply chain and agri-food development”. Why does this need to be separate? Why not take the opportunity to link the added value to the communities which produce the raw products?
That produce – which farmers can rightly label as with the most sustainable in the world – should have huge value as the world looks to “eat less but better” where meat is in the question. Our challenge as farmers is to capture far more of that value than we are able to at present – and we must also take responsibility and step up if we want to improve our lot. Decades of subsidies and support payments have seen the industry become and remain reliant on public money. Sadly, we continue to talk about the level of public payments and schemes to make farms viable rather than creating the correct environment for the sector. With such a marketable product, the new policy should at least partly be about ensuring that this value is realised by the primary producers.
Despite making reference to it, the proposed approach also largely ignores the developing trade situation and the several other areas which are intertwined. In particular, we can think of public health and food policy – an opportunity missed. For Wales, there is the added dimension of a rich heritage linked to the land and, as the “Iaith y Pridd” report recently showed, the Welsh language is deeply rooted in our rural communities. It is important that the final product protects them.
Papering over the cracks
Over the last 40 years, public funding of some sort has been present in UK farming and is now baked into farm and food economics. It has been estimated that in recent years some 80% of total farm income in Wales is derived from payments under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If structural change is not part of the solution, then an ever-decreasing pot of money will simply see farms cease to trade, with dire effects on rural communities.
The recent arguments when looking at a new Welsh agricultural policy have included whether the production of food – sometimes sold at below the cost of production – and the food security that brings is deemed a public good. The Welsh Government says No, because there is a market for food. However, it also contradicts itself by saying that “successive governments have provided support for policies that have increased agricultural production and provided affordable food.” The market is, of course, broken and distorted and just like the UK Government, it is ignoring the elephant in the room.
It is interesting the way the White Paper talks of the wider industry and supply chain as something separate. It does go on to talk of supporting the creation of local supply chains and increasing the amount and value of Welsh products used in the supply chain, both in Wales and beyond. The Welsh Government needs to ensure that its future policy has measures which actually deliver on this and not keep what’s inside and beyond the farm gate separate.
Despite the few encouraging noises, they play a bit part in the proposed policy and once again, we have an approach which papers over the cracks of a broken food system.
There is, of course, no effective food policy in the UK and it was perhaps strange that the future agriculture policy proposals for England did not wait for the conclusion of the ongoing review on English food strategy being led by Henry Dimbleby. Once again, it seems to reinforce the failure by UK Government to link agriculture and food.
As for Wales, there are many strategic documents which have been produced by the Welsh Government, but nothing which ties them together and feeds through to the real world. Without such a policy encompassing agriculture, the environment, food production and processing, public health, rural economy, culture, language (the list could go on), there is a vacuum. As Professor Tim Lang says in his excellent book Feeding Britain, we are leaving the food policy to “Tesco et al”. This has led to a completely extractive food economy, where large companies are now dictating what small amount of money is allowed to trickle down the supply chain to primary producers. The huge imbalance of power in the market and the wealth which is being taken out of local communities is itself a cause of the current reliance on public money in food production. With funding about to be cut, a problem postponed with support schemes for many years has now become a real issue.
Transformative policy possible
Successive Governments – UK and Welsh – have ignored this issue and it has led to a plethora of other problems. The prevalence of ultra-processed foods has contributed to unprecedented levels of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity; all because we have failed to look seriously at a food policy and we have instead allowed entirely profit driven companies to control our diets and keep our producers reliant on public money.
Having allowed and indeed encouraged this, Governments must now acknowledge their role in doing so and the need for them to be a part of the solution. There’s a significant amount of regulations which protect consumers when you have a monopoly or oligopoly (small number of sellers in a market) but no corresponding protection for producers where you have monopsonies or oligopsonies (one or a small number of buyers). The Grocery Code Adjudicator’s remit is far too narrow to be effective in respect of primary producers.
Regulation and the creation of a fair marketplace is therefore one potential solution. But it could also involve the provision of a protected space in the market for the creation of co-operatives or suitable organisations which could level the playing field to some degree. Localism and shorter supply chains would be beneficial for Wales but we must also be able to target other lucrative markets and ensure that the profits are finding their way back to our communities. The potential solutions deserve far more thorough consideration but it’s clear that Wales needs a mature discussion about this as a matter of urgency.
The UK Government has chosen its plan and it will be the end of many English farms. Wales needs a different approach. If it really wants to create a sustainable future for the sector, reduce or eliminate reliance on support payments and address a whole host of other issues at the same time, the Welsh Government must look at the structure of the entire food sector – a genuine farm to fork approach. A comprehensive policy looking at the wellbeing of its rural communities has the power to be transformative for the whole of our country. The White Paper speaks of all of these things but they must be followed through and each of the issues given equal weight.
Having seen the future trajectory for the sector as proposed by Westminster, characterised by damaging our closest export links and failing to ensure standards of imports, I firmly believe that the brightest future for Wales lies in Independence. Across the board where food is concerned, the UK Government’s approach is disappointing. There seems to be very little interest in promoting a successful agricultural sector or dealing with wider issues such as food poverty. All of the issues touched upon in this article will be better served by policies designed by and for Wales.
In the meantime, there is still much which could be done. I would urge everyone who reads this to impress upon the Welsh Government – through the White Paper Consultation or via your MS’s – that the current proposals are an opportunity missed. It’s also the case that The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 could be a firm foundation for a sustainable future for agriculture, while also dealing with the issues of food poverty, food education and creating a food market which functions for Wales’s producers and its people. The Future Generations Act really needs to start achieving something, not just be a nice idea.
Dr Ludivine Petetin also proposes some excellent ideas about how we can all change small things based on what we have learnt during the Covid crisis. Dr Petetin also notes what changes policymakers at several levels could adopt. So much is based upon common sense but the neo-liberal oil tanker takes a great deal of effort to turn.
At the essence of the food democracy she proposes is the simple challenge of getting everybody – all of us -– engaged with the subject. It shouldn’t be hard – we all eat – but it is an issue which we have all been encouraged not to think too hard about for too long. The time for an agricultural policy which plugs financial holes and only deals with what goes on within the farm gate are long gone. For a country so able to produce sustainable food, Wales needs far more ambition to reach its potential.
Rhodri trained as a solicitor and specialised in Agricultural Law, becoming a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association in 2016. While he still practises law part-time and advises on succession and business structures, he now farms and has recently entered a joint venture involving grass-based dairying.
Images: Rhodri Elfyn Jones.