UK shadow minister: Britain needs a real food policy after Brexit

"We overestimate the economic importance of farming even in rural areas, but if you ignore it you ignore one of the most basic building blocks of how any country looks after its people." [StroudLabourOrganise/YouTube]

After Brexit, the UK should develop a real food policy focused on consumer health and self-sufficiency, while ensuring public money gets to the farmers who need it, David Drew told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

David Drew is the UK shadow minister for environment, food, rural affairs and waste. He is the Labour MP for Stroud, in southwest England.

Drew spoke to EURACTIV.com’s Samuel White.

After leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy the UK will have the opportunity to completely rethink the way it produces and consumes food and how it pays for this. Will it be business as usual or will post-Brexit farming become a big political issue?

Food is incredibly political because, along with housing, it is the most basic of all issues. You can’t ignore the politics of who produces your food, what they produce, who it’s for, what you sell it for, whether it is what people should be eating and whether they get enough of it.

We need a real food policy, which we don’t currently have. I’m working with experts on revisiting what we really mean by a food policy: it’s not just about what you eat but about hygiene and fitness and diet.

So these are huge political issues, which sometimes get masked because agricultural policy has been largely consensual. The risk is that there will be some conflict between the government and farmers over this because farming is just one small part of a much bigger arrangement. It just so happens that it gets its money from Europe at the moment. But there’s no need to fall out over it.

The Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester did an analysis looking at the share of farming in income generation in the 15 miles around Cirencester (a very rural area) and they found it was just 0.2%.

So we do overestimate the economic importance of farming even in rural areas, but if you ignore it you ignore one of the most basic building blocks of how any country looks after its people. We need to move to a system that supports farmers to do the things we want them to do and doesn’t encourage them to do the things we don’t want them to do.

Can an independent UK design a farming system that is both economically and environmentally sustainable or will there always be this tension between the economy and the environment?

The honest answer is that they are not necessarily in conflict, but they can be. For some, the answer for economic viability would be to have much bigger farming units. But my view is that mega-farms are not acceptable because the environmental price is too high. For example, if you have a dairy herd of 1,500 cows and you get a disease outbreak, it is just not containable.

I like smaller farms because that is what gives the variety. Plus I want people on the land and smaller farms provide more jobs so they are better for the economy. Not necessarily in farming itself but in all the trades that go with it, like dry stone walling.

But the crunch point on the economy versus environment question is going to be how we pay for environmental schemes and stewardship. I am a big fan of stewardship schemes but a lot of the money under the CAP greening pillar currently goes to people who don’t need it: if they’re good farmers they should be taking environmental action anyway.

And then there are parts of the farming estate that are important for the environment but just won’t survive without subsidies. Look at hill farmers. They start with a £10,000 loss every year so unless we give them something they won’t survive. So the question there is do we pay them to manage the farms? Do we pay them to manage the countryside? Do we say, ‘we aren’t paying you and the countryside can look after itself’, and we re-wild these areas? These are all quite logical but difficult questions that have to be asked.

The UK is a big importer of food. Will this new food policy aim to make Britain more food independent?

The food chain is a very sensitive issue. The supermarkets only carry two days’ worth of supply at any one time, which effectively means we are only ever three days away from anarchy. So short-term food security has to be where we want to get to, but that shouldn’t come at a cost of having a longer-term strategy for producing more of our own food.

One of the things I am pushing for within the Labour Party is to make Britain 80% self-sufficient. Why should we worry about exports, why don’t we just concentrate on becoming more food secure and doing some interesting things with our food?

It may sometimes mean we have less choice but that’s why we need a food policy that promotes what is seasonal and appropriate to our diet, rather than pushing, say, mange-tout over carrots. We are already 100% self-sufficient in carrots, by the way.

Would short supply chain schemes like local farmers markets be a part of this policy and are they a good way to make farming economically viable?

I think they are a good idea, except that if you look at Stroud farmers market, there are not that many traditional, professional farmers there; many of the stalls are held by local artisans or small-holders. It is very difficult for most farmers to opt out of the traditional food chains. It is a nice notion and it is great when they do manage it, but most traditional farmers are still supplying the middlemen like the milk processors and the supermarkets. And that can be done profitably.

The problem is that supermarkets are still too powerful, so one thing we will look at is the power of the grocery industry regulator.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) told me that farmers are now much more in favour of longer-term contracts for stability. And that could also play into the drive for greater self-sufficiency because we would know more precisely where demand and supply are. And to avoid demonising the supermarkets, there are plenty of examples of when farmers have been keen to play the markets themselves and it hasn’t worked out well for them.

The danger with long-term contracts is that it can be quite hard to do crop rotation – whether by imposition or by choice – when you have a contract to supply a certain number of peas every year. It’s great if you’ve got a huge farm because you can move your crops around, but if you’ve got less land you might have a problem.

What is your view on the re-licensing of glyphosate?

The view in Britain is that it should be re-licenced and Labour will support that, but probably for quite a restricted time period. With the levels of technological innovation we have today, we should be able to come up with some kind of alternative but at the moment there aren’t really any.

One problem with this debate is that people obsess over the term ‘glyphosate’ instead of focussing on the quantities used. This is the area we should really focus on.

The NFU has clearly linked glyphosate to the GMO debate and said it’s fine if you want to ban the pesticide but you have to let us use GMOs instead. Now, I haven’t got a problem with the science behind GMOs, but I do have a big problem with how a couple of companies control all the patents, and that’s dangerous.

Do you see precision farming as a way to mitigate the dangers of products like glyphosate?

Yes, I’ve seen some of the robotics they are using at the Royal Agricultural University now and it may be a solution. Because at the end of the day, who wants to throw expensive inputs around, if you can do it much more carefully using a robot. And that will come, but again it highlights the difference between the richer farmers and the poorer farmers who just haven’t got the capital to invest in that kind of innovation.

You have been a vegetarian for 25 years. Do you think British farmers are ready to trust a vegetarian in the agriculture ministry?

I think farmers need to be realistic about the fact that diets, and people’s tastes, are changing. And part of the driver for that will be the concern for the environment. There was a report out recently that said we are nowhere near being able to meet our climate change obligations because we have massively miscalculated the amount of methane being emitted out of cows’ bottoms.

We are obsessed with carbon but we haven’t looked at methane, which is many times stronger as a greenhouse gas. It’s becoming even clearer that farming is a major contributor to climate change.

It is time to start rewarding farmers for the actions they take to mitigate it, but the problem, as usual, is that only the richer farmers will be able to afford to invest in adaptation measures so we will end up paying them again. Sometimes in politics you get hoisted by your own petard: you want people to do things for the environment and you don’t want to pay richer farmers, but you have to because they are the ones taking the environmental action.