Ex-ministers have their say

22 May 2014

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a panel discussion at the Crop Protection Association’s Annual Convention between three ex-Defra Under-Secretaries of State for Farming. It was fascinating to hear their comments now that they are largely unfettered from the responsibilities of Government.

One thing that they all agreed upon was that Defra is perhaps the government department that is most likely to have to react to issues that come ‘out of the blue’, such as animal diseases, floods and food scares. They were all concerned that the very significant cuts in the department make it less able to cope with such issues, particularly if two come along at the same time.

I suppose that the biggest unforeseen issue that Defra has had to deal with in recent years was the Foot-and-Mouth disease outbreak in 2001. Defra (then MAFF) had more resources available at that time but even then staff from its various agencies were called to the front-line. Indirectly, this prolonged the commercial availability of isoproturon in the UK. This was because the CRD (then PSD) review of the herbicide was at a critical stage when the staff involved were diverted to fight the disease. It took a few years before the review got back on track.

Another interesting aspect debated was the issue of self-sufficiency and I was delighted to find myself agreeing with the former ministers. Self-sufficiency is rather an empty term. One has only to walk around a supermarket to see the vast range of foods that we cannot economically or technically produce in this country. It reminds me of the whole life cycle analysis that was carried out a few years ago on buying out-of-season cut flowers, either shipped in from Holland or flown in from Kenya. The conclusion was that cut flowers from Holland resulted in 17 times more carbon emissions to produce and deliver to the UK customer. Repatriating that production to glasshouses in the UK would, if we were as efficient as the Dutch, close that carbon gap slightly but not by 17 fold.


I read a letter in the Farmers Weekly from Guy Smith saying that the USA is 123% self-sufficient. Again, Im not sure what this means but the geographic area of the USA and hence the different climatic zones make it easier for them to produce a wider range of foods for their citizens than we could ever achieve. For instance, in November two or three years ago, I saw the sowing and harvesting of huge areas of lettuce on the border between Arizona and Mexico. This is a winter-only activity because in the summer it is almost too hot to grow any crop successfully, particularly lettuce. The irony is that in almost every American restaurant and diner, lettuce is always served but hardly ever eaten.

We can grow some crops very competitively and the self-sufficiency argument is a distraction from us focusing on what we do and doing it even better. This does not reflect a lack of ambition but harsh economic realities. However, we should never stop looking for new and realistic opportunities such as the longer season of production that has been magnificently achieved by the UK strawberry industry. Such developments need to have a market and often require research as well as investment.

Amongst the panel there was total support for science being a key foundation in determining the future health and competitiveness of our industry. There was also recognition that science is a long-term process and not a matter of a succession of three year research contracts. However, whilst all EU governments agree that decisions should be science-based, there was a warning that political self-interest can conflict with this principle and also, that individual or small groups of MEPs can be susceptible to the pseudo-science presented by single issue groups. This raised a debate on the neonicitinoids, more on which later.