Wednesday 8 January 2014

I never thought I'd agree with Owen Paterson

But don't let's go overboard about it.  I'm not sure either that the Defra Secretary has thought through the implications of what he said or that I agree very much with what he has thought through.

But I don't want to be curmudgeonly, Owen Paterson has made an interesting intervention in the debate, arguing that the UK should produce more of its own food, urging the nation to produce at least a quarter of the £8bn we currently spend importing agricultural produce.

He is absolutely right.  It is insane that we can only produce a third of our own cucumbers.  And don't get me started on apples....

I say this not because I am a little Englander who refuses to buy foreign stuff.  I say it because, if we could revive the diversity of our own production and retail systems, making them more local, we could use fewer resources, improve local economies and help our rural areas survive economic downturns better.

I'm sure the Treasury is even now shaking its head and accusing Paterson of being a protectionist - and this is an interesting and important debate, but it hasn't started yet.

If he wanted to put up trade barriers, then of course this would be 'protection'.  But if he wants to encourage new producers, and the systems and distributors they need, then it would be providing more competition - and that increases our resilience.

There are a few dinosaurs around who really believe we must be wholly passive in the face of any economic shift.  There are some who think that shrinking production and retailing into ever fewer hands is somehow more efficient.  It isn't - in most senses of the word.  It leaves people out of work when they could be doing something useful, and it leaves land lying wasted too.

The question is what Paterson wants to do about it.  The only hint in the news items suggests that he wants to allow more GM production in the UK, which seems to me going in precisely the opposite direction - and will leave farmers that much more dependent on a handful of monopolistic seed-producers.

Something will have to be done to make retailing less monopolistic too.  If Tesco is able to insist on paying our farmers after three months - providing themselves with an interest-free loan equal to two months stock - then it is hardly surprising UK farming is struggling.

In fact, the local food economy is one of the UK's enterprising bright spots, but it is all happening very slowly (it would help if the new free school meals policy was linked to local producers too).

Because hidden away in Owen Paterson's message is a clue about the future direction of Liberal economic policy (what? Is there such a thing? There certainly is: it is called competition).

Liberal economic policy used to involve breaking the power of monopolies, whether it is seed manufacturers, retailers or food importers.  It involves diversity and efficiency with resources, not just streamlined efficiency with capital.

I would be only too pleased if the Conservative Party adopted Owen Paterson's lead, but don't hold your breath.  So, while we wait to find out if they do, here is a quotation from my friend and colleague Andrew Simms, writing in 2007:

"In 2004, the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; we imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream by weight, from France and exported 9.9 million,” he wrote in 2007. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes. We imported 43,000 scarves from Canada and exported 39,000... Just as we imported 44,000 tonnes of frozen boneless cuts of chicken, we exported 51,000 tonnes of fresh boneless chicken. From an environmental perspective, it would seem that someone somewhere is pulling a chicken’s leg..."

Quite so, and just to show there's nothing new under the sun, here is the great Liberal agrarian campaigner Jesse Collings, writing a century before:

“They say the land will not produce now. Has it lost its character? Take one article: how is it we buy every year £5,000,000 worth of cheese from the foreigner? Can England not produce this? How is it we purchase from £12,000,000 to £14,000,000 worth of butter? Is England not a butter producing country.”

We might say the same thing now: is England not a cucumber-producing country?  Or are we the kind of country where, for the sake of streamlined efficiency, we allow our land and people to be wasted?

1 comment:

Left Lib said...

I think you make a very good point, although I suspect the complications need to covered, maybe in a book?
Consumers want cucumber all the year round, not just at harvest time. So if that cucumber is to be British it would have to be put into cold storage and that could have a bigger carbon footprint than importing from a tropical country.
We also have to consider that we are densely populated.