The Oxford Farming Conference was certainly varied. There was talk of a floating dairy, rewilding and genetic modification, which really caught our imaginations and split opinions. Farming is such an umbrella term which encompasses so many avenues. However, without getting caught up in these innovative niches and without talk of the pig trotters served for lunch, I'll think on what to me represents meaningful and immediate applications.
Firstly – the main event for many – Michael Gove presented his predictions for farming going forward. Primarily this speech outlined how Brexit represents an opportunity for agriculture in the UK. Gove described the previous application of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as 'a bureaucratic straightjacket' which has been holding back innovation. He stated 'we can't
wish away these changes' and described how public goods will be of such newfound importance that they will be seen as an additional crop. However, Gove was quick to distance himself from the idea of a no-deal Brexit, emphasising that this would undermine his grand plans. Gove also seemed unclear on how this idea of public goods would be monetised to farmers.
Many at the conference seemed placated with Gove's positive enough sounding speech but NFU president Minette Batters soon stepped up to clarify that farming and food production played an extremely minor role in Gove's proposed policy. Cutting through the flowers of political speech, Batters said: 'If you believe it, write it, legislate it... There's no point in having a goal without having a plan. It's just a dream'. This comment was
capitalised on throughout the conference with many referring to Gove's speech as a 'Santa's wishlist'.
I had mixed thoughts on this, because although Gove's new policy does not seem to adequately outline plans for food production, it does
reflect the general uncertainty of a life outside of the EU. It is clear that the current system of agricultural policy does not work for many, and in my experience at best appears cluttered and overly complicated.
In Kafkaesque extremes, many farmers do not attempt their own paperwork as even the slightest errors are harshly penalised. The mass of bureaucratic paperwork pressing down on agriculture often goes unnoticed in the public domain. It's a private and isolating weight. When my mother was in labour, my dad told her to sit down and wait as he finished his annual return, which luckily enough was due to be handed in near the hospital. Paperwork has been pressing farming all my life, yet every new year brings mounting changes, remapping, and new systems. Gove's concept of palpable and sweeping change may appeal at first, but soberly I know warm frilly words go through a lot before they're implemented.
At the conference, I was struck with how very 'farmery' it all was. Although I grew up on a farm, it's only in this last year that I've decided to give it a crack. I guess that makes me a bit of a late convert. Predictably, there were a lot of farmers talking about their farms and discussing Gove's ideas on farms. There was a lot of tweed. A man came up to me and said he was my second cousin – he said he had a couple of other cousins at the conference too.
Farming, although an umbrella term, with many people doing different things, is a very close-knit group. It is perhaps because of this that you rarely see farming issues in the mainstream press. They are very much considered just that: issues for farmers. There seems a disconnect between agriculture and the public, so why should farming issues be headline news?
The biggest chunk of the EU's budget has always been CAP, to support farms and ensure a high standard of food production. Even if you don't particularly care about farms, the allocation of such a huge budget is an excellent political indicator. Indulge me. I've been sifting through the Hansard Corpus, a database of the House of Commons speeches (albeit up to 2005), and my findings were pretty clear.
The vast majority of political debate on CAP is all about reform, in other words, reflecting the constant change in policy which has left agriculture in the UK unstable. The top six collocations, the words most associated with CAP, are 'reform', 'changes', 'reforms', 'reforming,' 'review', and 'reformed'. I did note that these 'reform' terms increased significantly from 1970-2000, whereas 'changes' fell out of favour. In my mind, this is because 'change' vaguely defines the process of substitution whereas 'reform' implies correction and progression.
At a glance, I find it seriously concerning that the objectives and functions of CAP are rarely discussed by politicians. Tony Blair was discussed in relation to CAP as much as the entire greening policy. This is evocative of wider political issues and inefficiencies. At a base level, how the biggest allocation of EU funding is managed should concern us all. How the government handle food production should also concern us all in a world where there are more mouths to feed each day.
Instability in agriculture is dangerous. Julie Borlaug, the granddaughter of Nobel peace prize-winning Norman Borlaug and VP of INARI, spoke very eloquently on this: 'If you want a stable world, care about agriculture'. Borlaug highlighted that political instability and starvation go hand in hand. I'm not saying there will be apocalyptic scenes in your local supermarket post-Brexit, but we have to acknowledge the connection and not allow agriculture to stall. This is not just related to our current subsidy set-up but import and export. If these are not cared for and farmers in the UK face a flooded market or severing of market links abroad, there will be long-reaching effects – domestic food production will be in the gutter.
Minette Batters warned of this threat stating: 'If we ever turn the food production tap off, we will struggle to turn it on again'. And for those who say we can just import everything – the UK is a wealthy country after all – I say you're dead wrong. Clocking up air miles on food isn't being a responsible citizen. Disregarding our stringent farming standards in favour of factory farming isn't progress.
Some MPs have recently suggested that Brexit will be a good thing, as cheaper food will be able to flood the market. Logically, imported food can
be cheaper, but can anyone honestly say it would stay that way if we were entirely reliant on it? If the demand for imported food increases, its price will reflect this, and without domestic agriculture, this is something we would have no control over.
Gove described new agricultural policy as marking a new age. It does feel that way. We are on the edge of something new and unknown. One farmer said to me that nowadays to stand still is to move backwards. Some farmers seemed blindly optimistic, that we would drive over Brexit like a speedbump and things would return to relative normality. That's a really dangerous opinion to hold. Things are going to change dramatically in what is already an unstable and ever-changing industry. It's in all of our interests to make sure that these changes will provide a system that can serve all of us.
Whether you care about political competence, economic stability, environmental issues, a traceable food supply, or our independence and ability to feed ourselves, you should care about farming.