In this exclusive interview for Progress, Oxfam’s campaigns and policy director Phil Bloomer responds to Hilary Benn’s announcement on the future of food in Britain. He says greater production and sustainability are possible – if the government can manage to redirect subsidies away from vested interests and towards public goods.
What is your view of Hilary Benn’s plans announced today?
There is much to be welcomed in the announcement. The emphasis is on the informed consumer and changing individual behaviour, but also on making sure that the food production system, especially in the UK, is focused on public goods such as health, the environment, high standards of animal welfare, rural jobs and communities, and low-carbon agriculture. These are all things people see as important public goods. Agriculture has become highly dependent on subsidies and there was not much in today’s announcement about redirection of subsidies towards such public goods, so it’s getting much harder for farmers to transform agricultural into the industry that we desperately need. Currently around 80% of subsidies across the EU are captured by the richest, because of the single farm payment that rewards the concentration of land ownership. This is even worse in Britain because of the system we have.
Redirection of that public money is currently squandered not on public goods but on a public bad. The question is how the government is going to push for a new socially and economically responsible farming. Benn cannot announce this because of European rules but we hope he and the government will use this as a springboard to redirect the wasteful payments. We should also beware that this does not come at the expense of small and medium size farmers across Europe who could benefit from subsidies to make healthy produce and create rural jobs.
What are the prospects for CAP reform?
The CAP is currently under review and has to be reformed by 2013. So now is the time to build a new consensus across European farming. This will need three things: First, governments standing up in these straitened times to prevent money being wasted on vested interests. Second, it means small and medium size farmers being more vocal about their needs especially in view of the transformation necessary for global food security, and thirdly the European public will need to wake up and demand that their money be used for the public good.
How do Labour and Tory plans compare?
Hilary Benn and Nick Herbert, who also spoke today, were quiet on issue of redirection of subsidies. But both were clear on the challenges we’re facing in terms of British agriculture and global food security. It was good to hear Nick Herbert speaking of his recent visit to farmers in Zambia.
They also said little about the need for much clearer regulation of international finance, which has led to volatility in the price of commodities and contributed to the food price rises of 2007. We hope both will become braver and bolder in those areas.
Is the call for greater production as well as greater sustainability realistic?
Both Hilary Benn and Nick Herbert said we need more food production and greater sustainability, and they spoke of the importance of research and development. But we still need the harder economic incentive if we want to reach low-carbon agriculture by 2025. With empty treasuries across Europe we can only do that if we marry sustainability with greater productivity.
Where does the developing world fit into this?
As a large emitter farming will play a vital role in keeping the global temperature rise to two degrees. But that rise will likely be four degrees for Africa so we’re already heading for catastrophic climate change there. So we have to make sure we are providing money for adaptation, through what there is of the Copenhagen deal, and orientating aid towards smallholder agriculture. In tropical countries smallholdings are more efficient in terms of energy use and economic output. We need to strike a balance between smallholding and large farms needed, and it is from there that you will get the biggest bang for your buck.
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