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Diary of a parliamentary intern

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Parliament is due to go into recess at the end of this month. This gives MPs a chance to return to their constituencies and everyone else the opportunity to regroup after the constant challenge of daily politics.

Since my last diary in May (VR, 5 May 2018, vol 182, p ii), Lord Trees has been involved in a wide variety of issues, from livestock worrying to blockchain technology. But, given the One Health focus of this issue, marking 130 years of Vet Record, I decided to consider sustainable agriculture and life beyond the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

A possible silver lining to Brexit is the opportunity to transform the system of financial support for agriculture in the UK (although as agriculture is a devolved matter, it’s a matter for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately). The CAP is mostly comprised of subsidy payments based on land owned with ‘rural development’ top-up payments. It was worth over €4 billion to the UK in 2015.

Reform of CAP is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the health of people, animals and the environment. Any new policy must consider countless perspectives and avoid unintended consequences – without being so narrow or bureaucratic that it can’t adapt successfully to each region, sector or year.

Recently, Lord Trees was invited to speak at the N8 AgriFood conference ,‘People, Health and Food Systems: challenges and solutions for 2030’ (N8 is a collaboration of eight research-intensive universities in the north of England). As a vet, it would have been easy to stick to livestock and disease, but his presentation included trade, regulation, labour and financial support, as well as discussing what it is that we want from our countryside in the future.

First, it involves deciding if CAP is working for the UK. The UK has lower agricultural productivity than many of our European neighbours and vast variation in the proportion of our farms that rely on income from CAP payments. For example, 90 per cent of the income of grazing livestock farms comes from CAP direct farm payments, compared with 10 per cent for poultry farms. We have excellent food safety, but struggle to control endemic diseases on farms. And we have a population that’s keen to visit our beautiful farmed landscape, but poor transport links for the rural communities living there.

Press activity outside parliament this week

If reform is needed and, as environment secretary Michael Gove has said, ‘we’ll use ‘public money for public good’, we must decide on our priorities. This means balancing the tension between enhancing standards and producing enough food (at the right price) to feed ourselves, while at the same time avoiding exporting poor welfare or environmental standards to other countries.

The solutions to these challenges lie beyond legislation. As vets and consumers we have our own priorities. We all have some power to affect positive change to improve health for all, for this and future generations.

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