HomeWildlife ForumDifferentiation - A sustainable future for UK agriculture (3.7.06)

Differentiation - A sustainable future for UK agriculture (3.7.06)

Differentiation - A sustainable future for UK agriculture

This important Report was launched at "The Royal".

Press coverage may be found as follows:

The Guardian HERE

Farmers Weekly HERE

The full report may be downloaded HERE


The sustainability of farming today will shape the face of Britain for our grandchildren. The last century has seen enormous change to the face of British industry. Our former might in ship-building is long lost, our car manufacturing sector slimmed down, coal-mining overtaken by more efficient fuels. In all these examples there’s been a sensible recognition that artificially protected markets are unsustainable, and we’ve had to adjust to the consequences for employment and for local economic vitality. Farming too is having to face up to the dismantling of the protection of the former Common Agricultural Policy, but as citizens we cannot view its decline with equanimity.

Three-quarters of the land in our country is occupied by agriculture. Farmers don’t only produce food - they bear the responsibility for our national landscape, for conservation and biodiversity. These benefits cannot be directly supported by any ‘consumer’ price mechanism nor can they be left to ‘hobby farmers’ or charged to public expenditure without an enormous bureaucracy and tax burden. Historically care of our countryside has been an uncosted but valued by-product of the farming sector. For this to continue we must have a thriving agriculture sector.

Broadening customer tastes mean that an increasing amount of food will be imported from areas where costs of production are lower or where a particular product is part of the identifiable national diet. Concern about ‘food miles’ needs to be balanced by a recognition of consumer expectations as well as of the climate consequences of extending the production capability of British agriculture. But self-sufficiency in indigenous-type produce has declined over the last fifteen years from more than 80% to close to 70%. To take two examples:

Consumer demand for pork has increased over that period, but self-sufficiency in pig-meat has declined dramatically.
The planted area for fruit and vegetables has declined by more than 20%, while the value of imports has increased by 50%.

These trends can be traced to a multiplicity of causes - government regulation, relative prices for imported products, supermarket buying practices and customer preferences. Whatever the causes, the effects are real and measurable and the consequences are visible and disturbing.

In commissioning this report as President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England I have had two aims:

to encourage people to enjoy their food and to feel confident in its provenance, and
to help sustain a viable UK farming sector confident to differentiate its output on the basis of quality in a competitive globalised market.

Consumers shouldn’t be asked to overpay for good quality food, and I see no future in any call for a return to the artificiality of protected markets. The strength of British agriculture lies in its ability to offer a differentiated product which shoppers associate with good taste, high animal welfare standards and environmental responsibility. Food produced in Britain offers good value and is worth paying for.

The research commissioned for this report and already published from other sources underlines the growing significance of the ‘ethical consumer’ but, alongside that, the disconnect between shoppers’ individual purchasing habits and their concern about the national landscape and the farming sector. (While 86% of consumers believe that Britain should be a farming nation and that British food should be widely available, only 18% actively ‘buy British’).

 This report usefully highlights three important facts about customers’ shopping decisions. First, that even ethically sensitive consumers need to see a personal motivation of quality, taste or health benefit if their purchasing habits are to change. Secondly, they want to be sure that supermarkets are passing a price differential back to farmers. Thirdly, there were doubts that their individual shopping decisions were significant enough to make a difference.

There is no quick fix to improve the economic viability of UK farming, but once lost a viable farming sector cannot be rebuilt. This report points to the need for the sustainability of farming to be placed firmly on the public agenda so that all parties can share responsibility for the future:

Government - providing the framework for a successful farming sector through balanced regulation and consumer education;

Supermarkets - accepting their crucial role in conveying information about farming and the provenance of the products they sell, and crucially demonstrating that ‘Fairtrade’ applies to UK farmers just as much as it does to third-world countries;

Customers - understanding that they ultimately make the choice on the quality of food they eat and on the long-term viability of the farming sector which supports it.

At the start of my Presidency I undertook to help to build links between the farming and retail sectors. As Chairman of Waitrose I’ve been able to initiate some practical steps to help farmers to understand better the markets they are selling into and to have the confidence to highlight the quality difference which entitles them to a fair price. These workshops build on the long-term relationships with British farmers which are an established part of how Waitrose sources quality food which customers can trust. We’ve also seen positive results from our work to provide more immediate links between shoppers and farmers.

The actions of each one of us today - as shoppers, as supermarket operators, as citizens - will determine whether future generations are able to appreciate ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ as we do. Farming is not a minority interest. It’s a national issue. We all have a part to play in putting it at the front of the public agenda.

Stuart Hampson,
President, Royal Agricultural Society of England 2005/06



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