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Thought for food

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THE Government spends so much time talking about the environmental impact of agriculture these days that one might be forgiven for wondering whether is still sees a role for farming in food production. The Secretary of State at defra, Mr David Miliband, was at it again this month, in a speech to a high-level conference on the future of European agriculture. Speaking at the conference, held at Wilton Park in West Sussex on October 9,* he highlighted the diversity of European farming and the ‘relentless global changes’ to which it must adapt — ‘Environmental pressures, such as climate change. Economic pressures, as our farmers look to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. Social pressures, such as the need to protect and preserve the environment and Europe's diverse landscape.’ It was not new, he pointed out, for farming to face up to change — but the current scale and pace of change were unprecedented.

Mr Miliband's speech was as much about creating a farming sector that was profitable without the need for subsidy as it was about the environment and, to be fair, he did mention food. However, while noting that ‘European farming is particularly good at producing high-quality, safe, speciality food with high environmental and welfare standards’, he also noted that ‘as growth in food supply in Europe has consistently grown faster than demand, farming's environmental role has become — in some ways and some areas — as important as its role in supplying food’. In calling on Europe to ‘get out of the language of subsidy and into the language of contract’, he envisaged the development of a farming sector ‘which thrived in a liberalised global market — making the most of the opportunities which global trade presented, and which received financial support for bringing public benefits which market-oriented farming alone would not deliver’. Farmers, he said, could be offered public money for producing specific public benefits which were valued — and perhaps highest on that list was the impact of farming on the environment. The Secretary of State made no mention of animal health or animal disease control in this context, which should be worrying for those concerned about these aspects.

With changes taking place both globally and in Europe, how might British livestock farming look in 10 years' time, and what about the veterinary practices that help to support it? As reported on p 577 of this issue, these particular questions had been considered the week before in a debate on ‘farming tomorrow’ at the bva Congress in London. Given current uncertainties, it is not surprising that views differed, with some participants taking a somewhat pessimistic view and others being more optimistic. There appeared to be a consensus, however, that change would continue in the sheep, beef and dairy sectors, with a general shift towards larger units, and with some smaller farms aiming to supply niche, high-value markets. There would be less call on vets for ‘fire brigade work’; instead, they would perform a more specialised consultancy role, ideally being actively involved in farm health planning. Concern was expressed as to whether market forces alone could ever be expected to sustain adequate veterinary cover in areas of low livestock density and, as more farmers adopted a whole herd/flock approach to production, about what this would mean for the welfare of individual animals. Questions were also asked about the implications for disease surveillance if vets were not visiting farms on a regular basis.

Among points made during the congress debate was that it was both unhelpful and unreasonable for the uk and other European governments to impose costly food safety and environmental standards on food producers in Europe while allowing on to the market foods produced to lower standards elsewhere; this did not help raise standards and could put local producers out of business. A similar point was made during a debate on animal welfare (see pp 575-576), where it was suggested that, however well intended, unilateral application of higher standards could simply move problems abroad. The point was also made that it was important to maintain the security of national food supplies, and security against disease, in an increasingly fragile world. It is all very well for the Government to rely on imports, but such an approach is not without its dangers, as recent concerns about energy supplies have indicated.

This brings us back to the Government's priorities and what might, and might not, be considered to be in the public interest. Maintaining food security and the integrity of the food supply might reasonably be considered to be in the public interest, as might safeguarding animal welfare and preventing disease. defra describes itself as ‘the department that deals with the essentials of life’, and most people would regard food as essential. The Government is right to be concerned for the environment, but it must also give thought to food.

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