Productionists unite under food security banner

A number of producer interests would like to revive food security as a major driver of agricultural policy. Organisations like the Commercial Farmers Group (CFG) in the UK, a small grouping of leading producers, argue that new threats are present in the form of population growth, pandemic diseases, climate change, terrorist actions and increased demand for renewable fuels. They want to change the balance between the environmental and food safety concerns that have been driving agricultural policy in recent years and return to more traditional productionist priorities.

Hence, the NFU in England argues that ‘Food security concerns … need to play a role in the design of any future agricultural policy. Similarly, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) argue ‘that security of food supplies should be a strategic priority.’ The CLA’s chief economist, Alan Buckwell, has been trailing the idea of a European Food and Environment Security Policy which would seek the ‘socially optimal’ production of high quality food, energy, biodiversity and landscape. This is undoubtedly an ingenious way of placing old ideas in a new wrapper.

The CFG takes the view that ‘80% of the food consumed nationally should be from the UK’. This revival of old style economic planning targets is too much for the NFU who stressed, in line with government thinking, ‘that food security was not the same as self-sufficiency and the union did not want to see the government set strict targets on food production or intervene in the market.’

What the NFU envisages is an ‘early warning system’ in which indicators such as the UK’s share of EU production in different sectors would be used. When that fell by a given amount, there would be an investigation by a joint industry/government panel. This would then presumably undertake measures to ‘safeguard the productive capacity of UK farming’, although how this would be compatible with EU state aids policy or WTO rules remains unexplained.

Farmers’ Weekly columist David Richardson, an unabashed defender of productionist values, has argued that the early warning committee should be set up as an equivalent of the Bank of England Monetary Committee. Of course, one difference is that the experts on the Bank of England do not have a substantial direct personal interest in the decisions made as farmers and their allies would.

Productionist lobbyists have tried to borrow discourses about energy security, claiming that if government can pay attention to energy security it can also move food security up the political agenda. However, oil and gas supplies are more reliant on a small number of potentially unstable countries than food supplies. This argument also overlooks the increasing global integration of food production. Nevertheless, the food security discourse is a powerful one and there are those who consider that it could be used as a basis for a productionist turn in policy.

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