Monthly Archives: February 2017

IRELAND’S FAILURE TO DOMESTICATE THE UK FOOD MARKET

As I was writing about Brexit earlier, I was thinking upon the position that Irish farmers now find themselves in. Elsewhere I have said that it is the single most important issue facing Irish farming since the Emergency [that is World War Two for readers outside of Ireland]. I have also recently read it described as the greatest challenge facing Irish farming since the Republic came into existence.

Somehow there was an inevitability about the latest crisis to hit Irish farming. If it was not Brexit it would have been triggered by a proliferation of international trade deals that exposed Irish farmers to the chill winds of free-trade. It may well happen for UK farmers post-Brexit, but at least UK farmers got to vote in the Referendum; unlike their Irish counterparts who are just being taken along for the ride.

As I stated in my earlier post ‘Post-Brexit delusions about deregulation’, I can see British farmers responding to the threat from cheaper imports by creating comprehensive unique-selling-points for their products. By so doing they will self-impose greater regulation upon themselves than what they lose from leaving the EU. It is perverse but quite probable. A major part of such a market-driven strategy will be to fully exploit ‘local’ and ‘British’. And therein is the crux of the matter for Irish farmers, they are neither ‘British’ or ‘local’; although one could argue that Wexford is closer to London than any part of Scotland.

Now, for historical reasons, I know the UK food markets reasonably well. I was taught at College to walk the food aisles and have been doing so ever since. And as I have alluded to frequently, I am shocked by how poor the presence of Irish produce is. As far as consumer-facing, visibly-Irish products go, Ireland is a one trick pony, Kerrygold butter. Yes, Ornua controls a major cheese brand in Pilgrims’ Choice but you would have to be knowledgeable to know that it is Irish.

As for Irish beef, it is only in three supermarkets [Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco] and even then, it fills the ‘budget’ and ‘standard’ shelves. Again, as I have said before, Irish beef finds its way into mince, meatballs and burgers. It is not the premium, grass-fed product that Irish farmers envisage or expect. They frequently send well-reared stock off to the factories that grade well. They are also likely to quality assured. And they end up on the bottom shelves of UK supermarkets or in burgers served up by the burger chains. If one is at the foundations of such a food chain, can one really expect to receive a premium price? And if you are so positioned, far better that you are a low-cost Brazilian rancher than a small-scale, Irish family farm.

Just why has Ireland ended up in such a weak market position in the UK? It is after all Ireland’s major market and it is one that it is highly dependent on; a fact that it will not be able to change in a short space of time before and after the reality of Brexit. With such a dependency, it is truly shocking that the country has allowed its food products to become [Kerrygold apart] nearly invisible in the UK. It is a marketing failure of truly awesome proportions.

One can probably find rational explanations for such a situation. Possibly the supermarkets have not wanted to promote Irish beef [after all British beef holds something of a special place in the minds of UK consumers similar to ‘English strawberries’]. Has the status quo been perfectly acceptable to the factories? Has it suited them to operate a simplified high-throughput, low-margin-per-head model; not least in the face of a supply base that offers them a far from homogenous raw material. They must also deal with the purchasing weight of the few buyers from the retailers and burger chains. And as for cheese, maybe it is a sound strategic choice not to put Irish front and centre when it comes to promoting Irish-origin cheddar in the UK. All of them are interesting explanations but they all leave the Irish farmer devilishly exposed to what Brexit might well usher in.

What I cannot understand is how so little has been done to develop Irish products for the UK markets. And by that, I mean products that would have created a following and a brand loyalty that goes beyond the UK-living Irish community. France does it, Italy does it, and others do it. In my childhood years, New Zealand Anchor butter was iconic [and how NZ must now regret having sold off the rights to use the Anchor brand to Arla Foods] and NZ lamb had a great reputation’ Likewise Argentina for its beef. And the owners of the Dewhurst chain of high-street butchers were ranching and processing across South America. They even owned the Blue Star Line to ship their beef back to the UK. And then as now, if you wanted cheese, you thought of France. Why then did the development of Irish products stall after Kerrygold?

The lack of recognized products and brands is now going to make dealing with Brexit that much more difficult for the Irish farming industry. Just how much easier would it have been if the UK consumer has developed an affinity over the years for an array of Irish food products? Due to location alone, British consumer should be thinking that Irish is not British but it is local and it is produced to standards that are clearly akin to those employed by Britain’s own farming industry. Food miles are obviously lower and there is a strong, untold story about Irish family farms and rural Ireland. The story is there but the book remains unpublished. And sadly, when it is, where are the products to accompany the marketing story? This is, and it should be recognized as one of the great mysteries of food marketing; just how did the Irish fail to ‘domesticate’ the UK market?

Advertisements

POST-BREXIT DELUSIONS ABOUT DEREGULATION

A part of the sales pitch made to British farmers pre-Referendum was that Brexit would mean a much lighter regulatory control of the farming industry; thus, the industry would emerge from Brexit as a globally-competitive, farming Utopia. We live in an age of ‘free-from’ food and the UK farming sector is to become free from Brussels red-tape. Consequently, unfettered it would be able to ‘grow more, sell more and export more’ to a new Golden Age of prosperity.

At least one well known economist believes that the ‘precautionary principle’ deployed by Brussels towards regulation is costing the British farmer and food consumer a fortune as it is holding back cost-reducing and yield-enhancing technologies from use. In contrast, I for one am quite happy that precaution is the right approach; it is after all why Germany, post the Japanese nuclear accident, chose to go nuclear power free. Is it any different with food; should we not be cautious about what we put in our mouths every day of our lives? And should we not be as equally cautious about how we produce that food?

The GMO-issue is a well-known one and some EU countries are wary of allowing their use. The pro-lobby cites the actions of the anti-GM lobby groups for such an attitude. But is it the anti-lobby or consumers who are driving that choice? I wonder what our society’s leaders eat? Are they disproportionately buyers of, say, organic foods? Is it why Waitrose, a supplier of food to the wealthy in the UK, is going GMO-free? Hence, is this a consumer segment that is heavily influenced by the anti-lobby exploiting social media or not?

British supermarkets have for years had to show due-diligence when sourcing their food supplies; the UK’s 1990 Food Safety Act embedded it. It was an Act passed by the UK Parliament, not legislation imposed by Brussels. One can only wonder at how many quality assurance schemes that it has spawned, Bord Bia’s and the Red Tractor scheme included. If it is not precautionary, it certainly encourages a significant degree of caution into the food system.

Note: [from the food.gov.uk website] “Due diligence’ is a defence which is designed to balance the protection of the consumer against defective food with the right of traders not to be convicted of an offence they have taken all reasonable care to avoid committing.  The result should be to encourage all concerned to take proper responsibility for their products…  This defence is available where the person charged proves that they „took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence by himself or by a person under his control… the burden of proof lies with the person or company accused, they need not establish their case beyond all reasonable doubt.  They need only persuade the court that they exercised ‘due diligence”.

We have nut-free labels; but those are about a clear health risk to a few. We have gluten-free as a few are gluten intolerant; but many more believe that they are. Although the latter may not have a medically-proven case, they believe they have an issue with gluten and that is what counts when it comes to providing them with food. And the food supply-chain has reacted to the consumers’ demand. One suspects that many are taking a precautionary approach; that by eating gluten-free they may avoid developing a greater problem.

In an information-filled, social-media-using world we should expect more, not less, consumer awareness of issues. Gluten is just one of many. It is an environment where access to information is vast and consequently it is increasingly difficult to get the ‘trust in the science’ message across [just whose science do you trust]. And, looking at what is presently happening in the general nutrition world and the, most probably, related explosions in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, ‘trust in the science’ is going to become a harder, not easier, sell to an aware public.

I recently read a statement on a presentational slide that said that nobody has died from eating for from GMOs. I am not going to argue against such, there has probably not been a proven case. One can say the same for the use of glyphosate, the use of which has exploded due to the advent of glyphosate-resistant soya and maize. There are now concerns [for some] that the vast tonnages of glyphosate used are impacting upon human health. As with much of the gluten issue, is it social-media driven awareness of the possibilities or is it a failure of the consumer to ‘trust in the science’? Either way, what is the position of the food retailer who is required by law to show ‘due diligence’ within their own food supply chains.

To go further and as a small, aside, just what are the implications going to be for our food supply systems from less access to glyphosate. It has become a key ingredient in minimum tillage farming and that is a way to reduce GHG emissions from crop growing. Some farmers are clearly saying that the loss of glyphosate will inhibit their ability to deal with climate-change-requiring emission reductions. I suspect that caution over glyphosate will, at least, mean that it will not be available for pre-harvest use. Will a post-Brexit UK go a different route to the EU on this one? Will it risk its food exports to the rest of the EU by allowing such glyphosate use?

Further, one is aware of concerns in Argentina that soybean monocultures [they occupy near 60% of the countries cropland] are leading to soil degradation and, thus a threat to our long-term food security. It is all GM soybean. Would that expansion have occurred without the availability of GM soya varieties? Would the Argentinian farmers be able to maintain such levels of planting if they had to operate broader rotations to facilitate weed control? Would the Argentinians have ploughed so much of the Pampas to grow soybean [thus releasing carbon into the atmosphere from a notable carbon sink] without GM soya? It is not that GM technology is wrong per se, it is just that there can be unforeseen consequences and ones that the scientists and those approving the use of a technology may not be testing for, or even thought about. Science by its ceteris paribus nature can often mean it is wise not to trust in the science, and caution or precaution may be the wisest approach, due-diligence driven or otherwise.

So, will a post-Brexit allow the cultivation of GM crops? It is probably as difficult to predict as the Referendum itself. Many will argue that GM is already so well embedded within the animal feed supply chain that it does not matter. It will also be so within the soya-product-using, food-processing industry’s supply chains. That said, it is clearly an issue that some supermarkets are taking seriously enough to want to establish GM-free supply chains. Are they following due-diligence and taking precautionary measures or are they acting upon consumer demand? If it is the latter, is the demand driven by consumer-awareness enhanced by social media?

GMOs are just a part of a much broader issue. It includes the use of growth hormones in beef farming. Growth hormones are a major trade issue between the USA and Europe. It always appears to swiftly rise to the surface when any trade deal is discussed. It will certainly do so when it comes to UK-USA trade discussions. It may, however, now be less of an issue when it comes to EU-USA trade given the alacrity with which the new US President is stalling trade negotiations in his belief that the USA should stop exporting jobs on the back of free-trade. Will he accept an EU argument that the EU has the right to protect EU cattle-farming jobs on the same principle?

It is very difficult to say how far post-Brexit UK will go with free-trade in food. Just what will the Government’s position be when it comes to farming and food policy? Will it result in food retailers and processors sourcing from the cheapest suppliers around the World? After all, one can hear the argument that it will mean cheaper food for the UK’s massed urban consumers. One suspects that it is the way that the pro-Brexiteers would like to see it go. It should, in theory, be a double win for the UK consumer / taxpayer if the country accepts sourcing more food from overseas whilst simultaneously reducing direct farm support. They could also, tacitly, say that this is what pro-Brexit voting farmers voted for. And were they not in the majority?

Hence, if I was a British farmer, I would be planning for the worst; lower support payments and more exposure to global free-markets and its low-cost suppliers; be they from South and North America, Australasia and, eventually, eastern Europe. Life is going to get tough. The question is what to do about it and how best to react to a chill wind that blows in from all quarters?

The first, obvious, complaint that will come from the UK farming community will be about the equivalence of production standards. Is it really fair-trade if imports come from farms that operate lower production standards, be they, say, environmental or animal-welfare related. When it comes to free-trade, has that stopped the importation of products from countries like China or Bangladesh which, allegedly, operate lower standards than would be demanded of UK producers? For UK farmers, it will be a difficult point to argue; especially as one can expect UK retailers and food processors to establish farm/quality assurance schemes elsewhere in the World to ensure that their due diligence remains complete.

I have read about how great will be the cost savings from deregulation in the UK. I have also read that there will be greater freedom to adopt yield enhancing technologies. Together both could improve the farmers profit. Will they? After 50 years on the technology treadmill is today’s farmer better off than one farming back in 1967? Many folks seem to make money out of the sale of farming and food-producing technology and the production of more, but does the farmer? And then there is the question of whether higher yields and lower costs will enable UK farmers, still small in global-exporting-nation terms, to compete with potential overseas suppliers to the UK market? That they can is probably a pipe dream.

So how will UK farmers compete in a free-trading, less-government-regulated, new world? They will compete by creating product differentiation and highlighting the unique selling points of their product. To the fore will be ‘British’, that it is locally produced and with all that consumers associate with ‘local’. The USPs will be fewer food miles, more traceable and trustworthy and it helps rural communities. Other potential USP’s will relate to enhanced animal welfare, lower carbon emissions and better carbon sequestration. Hormone-free and GM-free will quickly find their way onto the USP list. USPs will also be about enhancing the biodiversity to be found on and under British farmland and they will be about the management of traditional British landscapes. It will be surprising how many USP’s British farmers will find when the pressure is on.

And with all these product USPs will come the need to prove their provenance and to implement robust auditing of the USP claims. It will require designated-origin systems and ones that go above and beyond the farm assurance schemes that we have seen to date.  As with the likes of Red Tractor, they will be voluntary [after all in a free-trading world the government cannot get involved and impose]. It is, however, worth asking when voluntary become obligatory?

Most Irish beef farmers will tell you that the Irish quality [farm] assurance scheme is voluntary. But try to sell a non-quality assured animal. If one reads the small print on the UK websites of Asda, Sainsbury, Tesco, McDonalds… you will probably find phrases words like ‘all our beef comes from farm-assured farms in the UK or the Republic of Ireland’ [Aldi and Lidl with have one or the other depending on location]. To ensure that they can meet these requirements, the processors require their cattle to be sourced from quality-assured farms [apparently regardless of the actual final market destination]. Hence a scheme that started off as voluntary has become a necessity, irrespective of whether involvement generates a premium price for the farmer. One can see a ‘baseline’ farm-assurance scheme becoming a similar necessity in the UK post-Brexit.

The UK farmer will realize soon enough that protecting their home market will be about creating products that differentiate British produce from the competition. Oddly enough, this solution will also help UK farmers to export premium products. It will not be about ‘grow more, sell more, export more’, it will be about growing more, selling more and exporting more produce of known and provable quality and with British origins. It will not be about more per se. It is a significantly different approach and one that UK farmers will embrace out of necessity.

Hence, one can expect Brexit to bring about attempts to deregulate the British farming industry. One cannot, however, see a diminution of due diligence requirements coming about; after all they are rooted in British not EU law. So, do not expect any reduction to occur with the bureaucracy associated with the farm assurance required by the food retailer and food processors. It will just not happen. They may well also demand the equivalent from their new overseas suppliers; thus, diminishing the value of those schemes value when it comes to protecting the trading position of the UK farmer. In all probability, the QA baseline will rise elsewhere.

Far from seeing less regulation, Brexit may bring in for the British farmer an era of greater self-imposed regulation. It may even mean a greater rather than lesser total regulatory burden! And it may mean excluding some of the technologies that some believe will be freely available post-Brexit. It will be about producing what the consumer wants; even if consumer demand is driven to a degree by a population that is made ‘issues-aware’ by social media. It will take very much more that repeating the phrase, ‘you should trust in the science and accept what we say’.

A salutary point to make is that the UK farming community is not going to get Twitter or Facebook back in the box from whence they sprung. They drive ‘issues awareness’ so learn to live with it. And one should add that farm profitability is not likely to get far up the social-media agenda anytime soon; it will come well below what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast.

So, will it be one of those quirks of history that British farmers will indeed download some of the Brussels-emanating regulatory framework only to replace it with, not a UK-government created regulatory framework, but one of their own making? It will be as extraordinary as it is probable. Self-imposed regulation will follow deregulation in a way that will be unofficial and, thus, acceptable within free-trade agreements. And it will be farmers, once they realize that it is the only way that they can protect their own market position within a free-trading, post-Brexit world, that will be the driving force behind the creation of this new regulatory environment. How strange.

IS ANYONE VISITING CHELTENHAM OR AINTREE THIS YEAR?

With so much discussion going on in the Irish farming industry about Brexit and free-trade agreements at present, I thought it was time to ask the Irish farmer to have a look at their primary market, the UK, and the presence of Irish products on its supermarket shelves.

With the annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Festival nearly upon us and Aintree soon after, it is a good time to make a suggestion and, hopefully, gain some feedback.

A quick Google reveals that Cheltenham offers the full gamut of UK supermarkets; Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco [where you will find Irish beef] and Lidl, Aldi and Morrisons where you probably won’t. It also has a Waitrose and that is where I suggest one goes if one aspires to being a producer of premium foods. As food retail chains go, few are better than Waitrose.

As one cannot expect a racegoer to spend hours trawling the aisles of supermarkets, I would suggest to focus is on the meat and dairy shelves; that is after all what Irish farming is about; at least when we are talking exports. And please do not just investigate the chilled-produce shelves but also the delicatessen and butchery counters. It is the latter that often, conveniently, use national flags to highlight the country of origin. Just how numerous are the green, white and orange flags of Ireland? The counters are also staffed so do ask for Irish. Elsewhere one may have to read the small print.

So, what to look for? Kerrygold butter is a good starting point as it is likely to be the most obvious. How does it look upon the shelves? Is it asking you to put it in your basket or trolley? How does it compare with the competition in terms of presentation, packaging, its storyline and its price? Does it have unique selling points? And then move on to look for other Irish produce.

Ireland has two near-national quality assurance schemes, both of which are well known to Irish farmers and Irish farmers. Given that Ireland exports a few multiples of its domestic market size to the UK, just how visible and strong is Irish QA scheme presence on the UK supermarket shelves? Do they highlight that the premium status of Irish produce? Do they and other point-of-sale presence of Irish produce say, “buy me, I am Irish and I am special”? One would hope so.

This is only a suggestion knowing that a few Irish folk will be crossing the water soon. But I will go further, if you find yourself in the USA, Germany, the Gulf States or even China and you have an interest in Irish farming and food, please take the time to walk the aisles of the food retailers, it is always a surprisingly enlightening experience.

LET US NOT BE MISTAKEN, IT IS ABOUT FOOD SECURITY

Is food security relevant to post-Brexit British agricultural policy?

The classical economic view is that it should be left to free-trade; each nation produces what it is good at and trades with others for what it is not so good at producing. This maximizes the economic return to all. For the UK, this may mean selling financial services whilst buying its basic foods from others. With the current Government one can see this argument going a long way.

With the freedom to decide with whom it trades will the UK import its food commodities from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the Ukraine? For its premium foods, will it look to France and Italy; after all they are good at them.

Does this equate with ensuring the food security of the British people? Given that one threat to food security is a poor harvest, sourcing your eggs from various global baskets has merit. This works on the, one hopes realistic, assumption that the movement of goods into the UK will not be impacted by conflict. One should not forget that the root of pre-EU British agricultural policy was the 1947 Agricultural Act, drafted soon after the Battle of the Atlantic.

The import-dependent approach to food security also assumes that the British people can pay for what they need. Will a post-Brexit UK have the earning power and currency strength to source its food internationally? Will it be able to do so in times of global shortage when, for example, the Chinese [who are investing to secure their international food supply chains] are a major food importer. Simply, there is a risk in globalising your food security.

On the other side of the debate we have the National Farmers Union championing food security. Is it just an argument for maintaining farm support at current, Brussels-provided levels? Will the governing political class be convinced to share the objective that, say, two-thirds of the national food supply is produced at home? Or will they prefer to tell the British consumer/taxpayer that they have more to gain from a lower-cost, imported food supply and a lower farm-support burden?

To my mind these arguments just miss too many important points about food security. They do not fully consider the actual, global and UK, food supply situation and what threatens it.

There is much talk about climate change and that it will impact upon our food supplies. In the case of the UK there is even the suggestion that a warmer climate may enhance the productive potential. Although we are often told about the importance of emissions reductions and that agriculture must play a major role in such, one still has the impression that its consequences are still away in the future. If it is decades, it is well out of the democratic, political timeframe. But maybe there is more at play here than climate change per se; maybe there are immediate food security issues?

I have recently giving some editorial help on a book chapter about the importance of grazing livestock to the resilience of our future food systems. It refers to other writings that say we have, in global terms, only about 60 harvests left in our soils; they are being degraded for several reasons that fast. In the UK, it may be around 100 and possibly less in the grain producing regions of south and east England. I have seen the latter happen during my own farming lifetime so such a statement does not surprise me. It should be startling to others. Given the global situation [which is a timeframe within the lifespan of our children] there is not even the opportunity to be complacent at England’s remaining century. Simply, food import reliance may not be a long-term option.

Various gases may be invisibly rising into our atmosphere with consequences that some still choose to deny, but the loss of our soils is, from the perspective of our food security, as equally critical. Is it really an issue that can be left till later? No not at all; we are not going to be able to address soil loss and the loss of organic matters from our soils in a few years, it will take decades and those decades are all that we have. As to the importance of grazing livestock, well I do not believe we can just compost our way back to healthy soils. But that is another story. Soil health is a critical issue worldwide and it is important to recognise, within the context of food security, that Britain can only address the issue at home; it cannot address it directly elsewhere. By outsourcing its food supplies it runs the very grave risk of placing its food security in the hands of others who may just lack the vision to address the soil health issue before it is too late.

The degradation of our soils is not our sole food production problem facing; there are others which are occurring concurrently. They have a common thread; the ability of the natural world to get the better of the human race’s technology. And it is not just a single technology that is losing out, it is a plethora of them. They are also the one’s that underpin the large-scale, industrial agriculture that has made food affordable to our urban populations. The fact that these technologies are so often used in cropping and animal farming monocultures is no coincidence.

Let us start with herbicide resistance in weeds. We hear a lot now about glyphosate and whether its overuse is leading to health problems. It was an expensive, sparingly used, targeted weed killer in my youth. It is for many farmers a vital tool; especially when they are practicing low-tillage cropping. It is now the World’s most widely used herbicide due to the development of glyphosate-resistant, genetically-modified crops and its generic, ‘off-label’ lower cost. They have allowed glyphosates blanket use across vast areas of the World’s cropping land. If it is banned it will have been a significant own goal. That said, its widespread use is leading to the development of resistant weeds [a process of natural selection]. It is probably only a question of which stops glyphosate first, those lobbying for legislation to ban its use or the very weeds that it is supposed to kill. Either way, farming will lose a well-used tool.

On related note, blackgrass is becoming an ever-greater problem in the UK. It is becoming resistant to herbicides. It is forcing some farmers to switch from higher-yielding autumn-sown cereal crops to their spring equivalent so it will have a food supply implication. It is a problem for those practicing, lower-emission zero-till and min-till arable farming. Hence, it will also have a climate-change-addressing implication. It may soon reach a point where blackgrass has to be addressed through the re-introduction of grass leys to arable rotations and that will mean re-introducing livestock. With their potential to rebuild organic matter in the soils via appropriate grazing practices and direct/indirect manuring, it can be a win-win; but it will only be achieved with an investment cost.

About 20 years ago, I did some interesting work for the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge. The objective was to take their technical evaluation ratings of cereal varieties [grain quality, disease resistance etc.] and predict the likely financial performance of the different varieties in National List trials. Personally, I was keen to highlight the value of selecting cultivars with better disease resistance, standing power and quality.  It involved a complex model that assessed disease resistance and determined a likely one, two, three or four fungicide spray regime [plus seed dressing] for each variety. On one side, it involved varietal disease resistance and on the other the efficacy of many fungicides at different application rates.

At the time, we were seeing very high levels of disease control being achieved and, consequentially, improved yields. It included fine tuning and low rates of this and that fungicide to create targeted, cost-effective ‘cocktails’. It was effective. Now I look back and wonder whether the use of low rates of fungicides has helped the very fungal diseases that were being targeted to adapt and to develop resistance faster than might otherwise have been the case. It is only speculation and hindsight on my part, but I do wonder whether we were being a little too clever for our own good. Did we open Pandora’s Box?

And then we have the not so small matter of rising antibiotic resistance and there are obvious consequences for human health if we lose antibiotics. This is also linked to their on-farm use. It will lead to an impact on our food supply. Antibiotics are widely used in intensive, confined livestock production systems and one wonders how they will cope with restrictions on antibiotic use. One also wonders if the breeding of ultra-lean and/or very fast growing strains of farm livestock is helping? Are they more susceptible to illness? Antibiotic use is an immediate issue. Further, on a more livestock farming-only note, just how serious is the resistance of internal parasites to our worming treatments becoming? Is it another example of the natural world getting one step ahead of our technology? If it is, it is another issue that threatens our food security.

It is also not just about pathogen resistance to our ‘chemical’ solutions. Just what is the prognosis for our supplies of artificial fertilizers? Setting aside any concerns about the environmental implications of their use, for how long are we going to have the fossil fuel resources available for their creation? Or maybe we will devise ways to use renewable fuels for such [I understand that the Chinese use charcoal for such [I cannot say if they use sustainable plantation timber or natural forests for such]. For food security reasons, we need to think beyond just artificial fertilizers and begin to reduce our dependence on them by changing our approach to feeding plants.

Last but very not least, what about our pollinators? Do any of us doubt that our future as a human species is inexorably linked to the future of these highly industrious creatures? When you read of their decline, obviously, many do. We just cannot continue to be so cavalier about their wellbeing. They are a part of what we call biodiversity and they may be small [but not as small as the equally important life that is found in our soils] but they are vital to our long-term food security. Their future is our future. And as I am now often fond of saying; it is no longer good enough that biodiversity survives alongside our farming systems, it must thrive within them.

To conclude, personally, I do not advocate a continuation of production support payments post Brexit. I think tax payer’s money should be targeted far more directly at crucial issues, several of which I have highlighted above. Yes, it is about food security but in the context of creating robust farming systems that are adapted to address the multifarious issues that lie ahead. Creating such will mean change and with change comes costs, some of which may be justifiably met from the public purse; not least when the alternative is to risk the food security of future generations.

The issues above will provide challenges and some of those will be met adequately by our science and technology, others may prove beyond them. As I have been saying elsewhere, we will also need to return to using more traditional farming husbandry to ensure that we have resilient food systems going forward. And that means placing more reliance on the farmer as a manager and the on-farm resources that she or he has available to hand. Thus, the UK needs a farming and food policy that supports the endeavours of all to achieve food security for now and into the future.

And in case you have missed my underlying point, these issues and, by association, our food security is not an issue for tomorrow; the problems are here and now and escalating by the day. Simply put, we have exploited and exhausted our soils and we have overused and abused our farming technologies. It is opportune that Brexit is allowing a revision of food and farming policy in the UK; let us hope it is an opportunity that is met with thought, wisdom and common sense as it cannot be left for succeeding generations to suffer the consequences of our generation not recognizing and rectifying the recent errors in our farming ways.