Future of farming debate at Oxford conference

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference today, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Defra, launched Labour’s futuristic Food 2030 document, which has a strong emphasis on health and public awareness, including making more land available for people to grow their own food, and establishing a ‘Healthier Food Mark’, plus reducing greenhouse gas emissions through anaerobic digestion and improving recycling.

‘It’s a big challenge, but also a big opportunity for farming,’ he said. ‘We need to do three things: produce more food; do it sustainably, and make sure that the food we eat safeguards our health.’

His opposite number, Nick Herbert, hit back with the Conservatives’ plan for a supermarket ombudsman to enforce accurate food labelling: ‘Consumers are being misled – meat is being falsely labelled – and we are letting down our producers. It’s not enough to talk vaguely about honesty; some major supermarkets have agreed to re-label, but what about those who won’t?’

Both minister and shadow minister stressed the future importance of science and technology – Mr Herbert rejected calls for a reduction in livestock and said that farming must be led by science and that there should be a radical debate on new technology, including GM – and they agreed that cost-sharing (between government and farmers) on animal health, as seen last year with the bluetongue vaccine, would be the way forward.

Mr Herbert also warned of ‘inevitable’ budgetary restrictions, and said the Tories would make cuts in bureaucracy, including to the 26,000 staff employed by Defra and its quangos.

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Where the two really diverged was on the perennially knotty subject of badgers and bovine TB. Mr Benn admitted: ‘I’ve realised my decision (not to allow a badger cull in England) is unpopular and if I’d wanted a quiet life, I wouldn’t have made it. There are six ongoing demonstration trials for badger vaccination and we are waiting for the 2009 figures (of cattle deaths) which we hope will be an improvement on 2008.’

But for the Conservatives, shadow agriculture minister Jim Paice said bluntly: ‘We’ve wasted too much time and got nowhere. A vaccine (against the disease) has its attractions, but it’s not available until 2014 and we can’t wait that long. We need to attack badgers and the disease hotspot areas.’