I’ve read through the agri-food strategy 2030 as a farmer, and I’m disappointed. I don’t see that it makes any commitment to me, though it asks for a number of commitments from me.
Farmers are growing and selling food for little margin. This is because the globalisation of markets means prices are set from the bottom up.
In recognition of this, European farmers’ incomes have been buttressed by price supports. Initially these were on the product, then on the production, and then through decoupled payments on the land base from which production takes place.
Now these payments are evolving to support environmental goods. I don’t oppose that. We must protect our water, our soils, our air, our plants and wildlife.
But how do we support production through that transition? The margins won’t change. They haven’t in my lifetime. Brief periods of price hikes such as we are witnessing at present in the post-Brexit sheep market don’t last.
I wanted to see a recognition of one simple fact at the heart of the agri-food strategy – the fact that farmers’ incomes are not fair reward for their efforts. The fact that the market is rigged. Many farmers don’t even get the minimum wage if you compare hours worked to income generated.
Maybe these problems are intractable. But the first step to finding a solution is to honestly name the problem. And the honest truth is that a farmer with 100 suckler cows or 400 ewes should be earning the average industrial wage. They are supplying full-time labour, plus management, land and capital investment. We’re miles from that, and the primary focus of the agri-food strategy should be to write that wrong, and then try to right that wrong.
And of all people Tom Arnold should be the right man to recognise that unfairness. As CEO of Concern for over a decade, he understands globalisation and its impact on farmers in the developing world. He surely sees the parallels in the rigged game that is food production in the EU.
I had hoped that the agri-food strategy would put those truths at its core. I hoped that the drive to increase the farm income of farmers would inform all related issues. I hoped that a clear target would be identified for the average farm income in 2030.
There are a number of actions identified under the heading “Viable and Resilient Producers With Enhanced Wellbeing”, as many as a dozen. But there isn’t one figure to put flesh or focus on any of these. They are aspirations rather than commitments.
Compare this with the “Climate smart, Environmentally Sustainable Agri-Food Sector” section of the strategy. Of the eight categories listed here, seven have identifiable targets. These range from reducing biogenic methane by 10% to reducing ammonia emissions by 107,500t, and having 10% of farmed area prioritised for biodiversity. Only forestry is left without a measurable metric.
If you don’t shoot, you won’t score. With no clear income targets for farmers, there’s no way this plan can fail. Because it never really tried to succeed.