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IT IS not clear how long Mr David Miliband will remain as Secretary of State at defra (he is currently being touted as a possible replacement for the deputy prime minister) but, in the two months since he was appointed, he has worked hard to get a handle on his brief and gone to great lengths to let people know what he is up to. Not only is he writing a ministerial blog, in which he sets out his views on issues as diverse as the future of the planet and the power of citizens in the community, he is also engaging in an online dialogue on the future of farming. Both the blog and the farming debate are being hosted on defra's website (www.defra.gov.uk). The website also sets out the new minister's priorities for his department, in the form of a letter he has written to the Prime Minister.
More so than previous documents, Mr Miliband's letter puts the environment firmly at the top of defra's agenda. It also briefly refers to animal health, stating that ‘Under Margaret Beckett, defra went a long way to re-establish public confidence in government's ability to handle animal health crises. I am determined to maintain that confidence while sharing more responsibility for high levels of animal health and welfare with the farming industry.’ Some of his most interesting comments, however, relate to farming and food. Farming, Mr Miliband argues, is not separate from efforts to protect the environment, but central to them — and he seems to suggest a whole new reason for agriculture. He tells the Prime Minister: ‘Farming is not separate from the rest of the department [defra]; it is central to it. Nor is it separate from our wider ambitions for the country. The food and farming sector is at the front line of our approach to both climatic change and the natural environment. Alongside its important economic and health impacts, the food sector leaves a very significant environmental footprint … Our goal must be to develop a profitable and competitive domestic farming industry which is a positive net contributor to the environment, while reducing the environmental footprint — at home and abroad — of our food consumption.’
Mr Miliband expanded on his ideas in a speech at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh last week (see pp 62-63 of this issue). He said that he still had much to learn about farming, but that, over the past eight weeks, he had learned a lot. Building on the concept of ‘one planet living’ propounded by the World Wildlife Federation (wwf), he introduced the idea of ‘one planet farming’ — ‘farming which minimises the impact on the environment of food production and consumption, and farming which maximises its contribution to renewal of the natural environment’.
‘We are living as if we had three planets’ worth of resources to live with, rather than just one,’ he told farmers. ‘So if we are to build a sustainable future economically as well as environmentally — because make no mistake there are huge economic costs from this imbalance as well as environmental costs — we need to cut by about two-thirds our ecological footprint.’
One planet farming meant ‘respecting the limits of our natural resources, and nurturing them’. He urged farmers to embrace the philosophy which, he said, must be at the heart of a new partnership between farmers and government, and which encapsulated the challenges and opportunities presenting themselves, both in the farming sector and more widely. In return, they could expect help from the Government in the form of funds to pay for environmental stewardship; regulation to help promote a profitable sector that shared the burden of preventing and responding to animal health risks; negotiation to deliver a level playing field in Britain, Europe and across the world; and persuasion to promote more demand for home-grown produce.
If the one planet concept seemed new, other aspects of the minister's speech were more familiar. Discussing the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, for example, he emphasised the importance of ‘sharing fairly’ the responsibilities and costs of protecting animal health. He pointed out that ‘personal responsibility on the part of farmers is the starting point for any effective system of animal health and welfare’ and made clear that the Government felt that more of the costs of disease control should be borne by the industry. On the matter of bovine tuberculosis, he said that there were ‘too many unknowns’ to give a final decision on controlling the badger population, and that any decision would need ‘the backing of scientific, practical, financial and organisational logic that has the confidence of farmers and animal welfare organisations’.
The one planet concept has much to commend it, although, given the current economic pressures, some farmers may well be left wondering just which planet the minister is on. At the same time, judging from comments in his speech and his blog, Mr Miliband does seem to have recognised that uk agriculture is vital, economically and socially, as well as environmentally. He also seems to have recognised that the Government needs to commit itself to a clear and consistent strategy. This much is encouraging. The hard part, now as always, will be to translate fine sentiments into policies that work.