The turn in the weather prompts Country Life's columnist Agromenes to reflect on how modern farming gave us food security and safety as never seen before in human history — and warns us not to forget how it was achieved/
Feste’s song from Twelfth Night might well ring in the ears of farmers up and down the country. ‘The rain it raineth every day’ is what most of them are experiencing: mild weather, but with hardly a day dry enough to plant. This is a repeat of last year for many and we now expect storms and flooding yet again in the places that were so damaged last winter.
Nor can we expect better in the future. Our disjointed climate is now prey to extreme events here and in the rest of the world. Even the tail end of hurricanes such as Epsilon is enough to flood fields and make sowing impossible.
When farmers do manage to get their tractors onto the land and plant their crops, there’s no guarantee that more rain won’t wash the seed out of the ground. Then, the only hope is to plant in spring. The seed that was meant to be sown in autumn must be stored and spring seed bought. Even then, next year, Feste’s wind and rain could ruin the best-laid plans.
That’s the reason that farming is different. Of course, it’s subject to the problems that beset every industry — access to capital, recruitment, market disruption, government policy, competitive pressures — all these factors affect agriculture as they affect other enterprises. What is different is the overwhelming importance of the weather.
Once, this was widely understood. Bad weather meant poor harvests and people going hungry. Such an outcome is unthinkable today. It is taken for granted that the nation will be fed. Politicians make that assumption and the issue gives their electors no sleepless nights, even if their comfortable certainty depends on what is no longer certain.
“So successful was the system that we produced too much. The wine lakes and the butter mountains were an unintended and unacceptable consequence. That’s what drove reform, but still food security was paramount and so the certainty remained”
It was the experience of war that built a support system for agriculture throughout Europe. It put home production and security of supply first with Deficiency Payments in Britain, the nascent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) among the six founding nations of the Common Market and nationally designed farming subsidy programmes in Scandinavia and Switzerland. Almost everyone in wartime had experienced food shortage, even hunger, and they weren’t going to let it happen again.
An increasingly free market between the nations spread the risk. Even the most pervasive of support systems isn’t proof against the weather, but trading without restriction evens things out. Bad weather doesn’t hit everyone at once. As the European Union expanded, so the free market in agricultural products grew and, for the consumer, the weather didn’t seem to threaten availability. The CAP ensured ever-increasing production.
Indeed, so successful was the system that we produced too much. The wine lakes and the butter mountains were an unintended and unacceptable consequence. That’s what drove reform, but still food security was paramount and so the certainty remained.
Production support and a huge market with friction-free borders have disconnected consumers from the realities of farming. They could always buy the food they wanted when they wanted it and the cost was an ever-smaller proportion of their income. The security of supply meant they could insist on better safety and animal-welfare standards, plus more stringent environmental protection.
Perhaps now, when we take for granted our ever-available, low-cost food, we might remember how that certainty was achieved. We might then reflect that we have a Government that is committed to abolishing production support and is close to excluding us from the frictionless market, yet still claims to be committed to defend our high standards of safety, welfare and environmental protection. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves where the certainties of food supply are now?