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David Cameron: Food security must be a priority

In a speech to the NFU today, Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron, said:

"I'm delighted to be here on the one hundredth anniversary of the National Farmers' Union.

The NFU is one of the most important trade associations in our country, championing British farming both at home and abroad.

I'm a member myself.

I care passionately about the countryside.

I was brought up in it.

I've spent much of my life in it.

And now, I represent a rural constituency in Parliament.

It cannot be said enough times that the British countryside is one of our most precious national treasures.

It's shaped our history and national character.

But let me make clear from the very beginning.

I want to see a living, working countryside - not a museum.

For me, there is no more vital an industry than the production of our food.

It's vital for our health, our culture and our economy.

Our country depends on a strong agricultural industry to provide rural jobs, to look after the land and produce our food … so I say enough of the pessimism, enough of the idea that British farming has had its time.

Government Failure

But let me begin by acknowledging how difficult recent times have been for British farming.

Global competition and rising costs have squeezed profits.

Foot and Mouth, Bluetongue and Avian Flu have ravaged our livestock and poultry.

An increasingly powerful retail sector has helped to disconnect consumer from farmer, and to divorce the rural community from its urban neighbours.

And these difficulties have been compounded by this Government.

For a start, they've been incompetent in getting the Single Farm Payments out in time.

This has cost farmers around £20 million in lost interest and arrangement fees.

And, it will cost the taxpayer nearly £300 million in late fines.

The implementation of the scheme has a "catastrophe", a "disaster", a "failure", a "debacle"….not my words, but the words of the Select Committee responsible for scrutinising this department.

Too many claims still remained resolved - leaving too many farmers with uncertainty hanging over them.

And they've been incompetent in their response to animal disease.

This Government should never, ever be allowed to forget that by allowing a live virus to leak from a laboratory that licensed, inspected and regulated by the government, they plunged the farming industry into crisis, undermined public confidence, and spectacularly failed one of its fundamental duties of care: to protect animal health.

The Government has launched a consultation on plans to rebalance the costs of livestock health between industry and the taxpayer.

That's fine in principle.

But it's not acceptable until the Government puts its own house in order.

And that means guaranteeing the biosecurity of its own laboratories, taking tougher action on imports of illegal meat and introducing a package of measures on bovine TB, by using the best science available.

But it's not just incompetence.

This Government has also been arrogant - arrogant in their attitudes to country life.

You can see it in the relish they took over banning rural sports.

You can see it in how rural areas come worse off in local government funding.

And you can see it in the closure of community hospitals and magistrates courts all over rural England.

And this Government has also been over-bearing.

Year after year, month after month, day after day: the sheer volume of constraints, red tape, laws, directives and guidelines imposed on land managers and farmers mounts up and up and up.

In 2006, 150 new regulations were implemented by Defra - a new record.

Of course rules are important. But this bureaucratic mess hasn't spared us Foot and Mouth, hasn't spared us BSE, and it hasn't spared us bird flu.

Food Security

Incompetent. Arrogant. Over-bearing.

I'm determined that a Conservative Government will be different.

And today, I want to show you how.

I want to focus on an issue that is vital for our economy, vital for our security, vital for every family in our country and vital for every one of you sitting here.

And yet, this issue is barely on the national radar - indeed, the Government hardly ever mentions it.

That issue is food security.

Some analysts are beginning to make some very worrying, very stark predictions.

That competition for resources will become intense. That food prices will continue to rise. That there will be world shortages of food.

And these analysts say that politicians should start to rank the issue of food security along side energy security and even national security.

The World Bank has warned that by 2030, food demand will double as world population increases by an additional two billion people.

The OECD has suggested food-price rises of between 20% and 50% over the next decade.

And recent reports in the journals Science and Nature suggest that one-third of ocean fisheries are in collapse, two-thirds will be in collapse by 2025, and all major ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048.

These developments are difficult to imagine right now.

Supermarkets have aisles of stocked shelves.

More and more restaurants are opening, catering for a variety of tastes.

And the internet has meant that you can get any type of food delivered to your doorstep at the click of a mouse.

But changes are happening in our world…changes like global economic progress and what this means for peoples' diets, climate change and the move to biofuels which directly affect the ability of the world's farmers to fulfil their essential purpose: to grow enough food for us all.

We face the potential prospect that the abundance of food that we all take for granted will come to a crashing end.

And so, it is argued we should now completely re-examine all our assumptions about how food is produced in our country.

History

We have, of course, been here before.

During World War II, there were shortages of aeroplanes and guns and bullets.

But the most important shortage of all was of something even more fundamental - food.

Rationing brought home to everyone the simple fact that we had barely enough food to live on.

At that time, governments didn't worry about modern problems like obesity. They worried about whether their people would be fed.

We all know how that experience moulded public policy in the post-war era, the attention we paid to increasing agricultural production, the state intervention to 'rationalise' marketing, with the egg marketing board, the MLC, and a host of other regimes.....

.....and the CAP, which we have to remember was introduced as a system to support food production targets across Europe.

Then, in the '70s and '80s, all of that concern with indigenous food production and self-sufficiency in food fell out of fashion.

We entered an era of reducing tariff barriers, growing trade, and the increasing import of exotic non-seasonal produce.

In those times of globalising markets and the seemingly limitless ability of the market to satisfy the consumer, concern with food security seemed utterly irrelevant.

By the 1990s, many people were talking about how there was not much of a future, nor much need, for food production in Britain - and that thinking continues to this day.

Food Crunch

The current Government has said that domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security.

It thinks that we can rely on globalisation and foreign markets to fill any gap between domestic demand and domestic supply.

And what a gap it is becoming.

In 1996, the UK's self-sufficiency in food production was seventy-two percent.

Today, it's sixty percent.

Yet just as we are relying - indeed, depending - more and more on foreign farmers to fill our shopping bags, cupboards and fridges … so the days of abundant food from around the world may well be coming to an end.

Three key factors - three key changes in the world - are converging to put global food production at risk, and undermine those who argue we can depend on foreign food.

The first is that as people around the world get richer - especially in China and India - so their diet is changing.

In 1985, the average Chinese consumer ate 20 kilos of meat a year. Now, they eat more than 50 kilos.

In developing countries as a whole, the demand for meat as doubled since 1980.

Unsurprisingly, farmers are following suit - making the switch from grain to livestock to meet this intense shift in demand. And this is causing a crunch in global grain stocks.

Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than you do if you eat it turned into bread.

You need three kilos of grain to produce a kilo of pork and eight to produce a kilo of beef. As a result, farmers now feed 250 million more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did twenty years ago.

That's enough wheat to feed the population of Brazil - for twenty-five years.

The second change that is happening in the world is climate change.

The result is reduced crop yields.

According to the UN, drought, deforestation and climate instability is responsible for the loss of 250 million acres of fertile soil - each year.

That's about the size of the whole of the Ukraine.

Last year, Australia experienced its worst drought for over a century and saw its wheat crop shrink by more than sixty percent.

And China's grain harvest alone has fallen by ten percent in the past seven years.

But things will only get worse and our food security will only get more vulnerable.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a one metre sea level rise will cause nearly one-third of world's total cropland to be swamped and rendered unusable.

This isn't some prophecy thousands of years down the line: at current levels, that one metre rise will occur before the end of the century.

The third change that is happening is the global diversion to biofuels.

No one doubts that we need to find clean alternatives to fossil fuels for both our energy security and tackling climate change.

And no one doubts that biofuels are an important part of the solution and offer new markets to our farmers. But they are not a panacea.

They're not a panacea because unless they are truly sustainable, the may well harm the environment more than protect it.

That's why the Conservatives voted against the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.

And biofuels are not a panacea because the more land we use to make biofuels, the less land we have to produce the most valuable fuel of all: food.

The figures are stark. According to The Economist, last year, a third of America's maize harvest was turned into ethanol to fuel cars.

That affects food markets directly - you could feed a person for a whole year from the grain that produces just one tank of fuel for a sports utility vehicle.

And indirectly too - as farmers, cashing in on biofuels, change to maize at the expense of other crops like wheat. These three factors - diet change, climate change, crop change - are contributing right now to global food crunch.

Grain stocks are at their lowest level for thirty years with food prices actually rising by six percent in the UK last year. And these factors will continue to make that global food crunch worse in the years to come.

How should politicians respond?

By giving this issue the attention and thought it deserves - not hoping it just goes away.

By ruling out those approaches - like protectionism and trade barriers - that we know do long term damage, not just to our own economy, but to others too.

And crucially we need to strip away those barriers to successful domestic food and farming that stand in the way of achieving greater food security.

As I will demonstrate this is a huge and demanding agenda.

And this is not just an agenda for government…consumers, farmers, supermarkets, the media all have a huge role to play.

Because it is vital, if we are to have a safe, secure and reasonably priced supply of food, that we all - government and each and every one of you - rise to this challenge.

Solution

This is what we must do.

First, we must complete the decoupling of production from central agricultural subsidies right across the EU.

Production subsidies have - rightly - ended for British farmers.

They must now be ended for those in the whole of Europe.

As long as that support continues, the market will never be truly free and each and every one of you sitting here will be at a disadvantage.

Your competitors in Poland will still be getting central support, still be reducing their costs, and still be pricing you out of the market.

And as a result, British consumers will still be buying foreign food.

It's unfair - and it's got to stop.

I have no doubt that British farmers, working in a genuinely free market, have the ingenuity, creativity and dynamism to take on foreign competition, respond to domestic demand and produce more of our country's own food.

Nothing less than our food security depends on that.

The second thing we must do to get British farmers producing more of our own food is related.

We must create a level playing field with our foreign competitors when it comes to regulation.

Our government often imposes far more onerous standards on British agriculture than exist elsewhere in the EU. This can have perverse consequences - instead of driving standards up we sometimes drive farmers out of business.

Take the British pig industry. We should rightly be proud of tradition of animal welfare.

But, by introducing higher standards first, Parliament placed our farmers at a disadvantage.

The result?

We've driven our pig industry into the ground.

We've exported cruelty abroad.

And we've made ourselves dependent on foreign production.

Our aim must surely be to take our EU partners with us wherever possible at first, so we have a truly level playing field on which British farmers can compete.

More generally though, we've got to strip away at the relentless amounts of red tape that burdens our agricultural industry.

It costs British farmers over £500 million to comply with regulations - each year.

That's £500 million that should be spent in investing in production, developing your products and securing our domestic food supply…not in complying with some pen-pusher in Whitehall.

A whole new approach is required.

One that concentrates on outcomes, not processes.

And one based on trust.

It must be assumed that farmers will do what they agree to do, with government relying more on existing assurance schemes such as LEAF and the Soil Association.

Where a tiny minority of farmers abuse that trust, then the penalties must - and will - be strict.

But if the spirit is one of confidence and co-operation, peer pressure will deal with most of the problems…and rest of you will be able to get on with the job, respond to the market and produce more of our country's food.

The third thing we must do to make sure we produce more of our own food is to make sure that British farmers reconnect with their customers.

Let me tell you why this is so important to our food security.

In the past few decades, you have lost your vital relationship with consumers.

Again, the CAP holds some responsibility.

Production target after target, encouraged mass-produced food that bore little relation to the preferences of the consumer in a free market.

Regional tradition, national taste and distinctive food were ignored.

Homogenisation was encouraged.

The result?

Unsurprising.

Consumers and farmers became increasingly divorced.

The loyalty, trust and sentiment on which your relationship was once based had little place in the world of commoditised food.

In your place stepped in the supermarket, offering the consumer what they needed - ease and practicality.

This has had a profound affect on your profits - and your ability to reinvest in the rural economy and in agriculture. And it has broader effects.

You can mock the Yummy Mummies who worry about the food they put in their children's mouths, but the fact is almost the entire baby food market has gone organic. You can mock Jamie Oliver who care about the welfare standards of chickens, but just ask yourself these questions:

Is the extant to which we care about the quality of food we eat going to increase?

Are worries about the connection between food and well-being going to increase?

We all know the answer is yes, we have a massive opportunity to ride this wave of active consumerism as we already produce some of the cleanest and best food.

Re-connecting with your customers won't be easy but it can be helped by a Government that is pro-active and has British farming - and British food security - in its interests.

That's why the Conservatives are committed to introducing rigorous and transparent food labelling.

Today, one in five British consumers would prefer to back British farmers and to buy British food.

But they find it difficult, because of inadequate food labelling. Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and then labelled in a way that suggests its genuinely British.

That's wrong.

It deceives the consumer.

And it undermines our domestic farming industry.

It's got to change.

Helping you re-connect with your customers is also why the next phase of the Conservative Co-Operative Movement will focus on food co-operatives.

Later this week, a book - called 'Nuts and Bolts' - will be published, showing how to set up one up.

Food Co-Operatives support provide good affordable food and breathe life into the relationships that bind society together.

Most importantly though, when it comes to our food security, they support local growers and encourage a healthy, local food economy.

Making a genuine free market by ending - once and for all - production subsidies, so British farmers can compete fairly with foreign competitors.

Creating a level-playing field of regulations so British farmers are not put at a disadvantage.

And helping farmers re-connect with consumers at home, so more money is being spent on more British food, meaning more profits for British farmers and more investment in British agriculture.

These three things - I believe - will help us face down the ever-growing threat to our food security.

Conclusion

Let me end by placing food security - and what I believe our response to it should be - in the context of the big picture: the Conservative Party's vision for our country.

We've been setting a vision for change, optimism and hope for our country.

It has three elements.

Our opportunity agenda recognises that we're living in a post-bureaucratic age where people demand more power and more control over their lives - and we want to give them that.

Our responsibility agenda wants to strengthen the ties that bind our society together.

And our security agenda wants to make Britain greener and safer.

These three things are intimately connected - if you give people greater power, they will behave more responsibly.

And a society which behaves more responsibly, will be more secure.

And what I've laid out today shows how this circle can work.

If we give farmers greater freedom - by creating a genuine free market for you to work in, by changing our whole approach to regulation, and giving you the means to connect with your customers through proper food labelling and the ability to set up food co-operatives…

…we are literally giving them more power and more control over the decisions that affect them.

Once you have that power, as a Conservative, I fundamentally believe you will become far more conscious about the way you use it.

More responsible about your environmental impact.

More responsible about the kind of food you produce as you'll be judged by consumers not government.

And more responsible in making sure you reduce your costs, meet rising demand and produce more of our country's food. And the overall affect will be to make Britain greener and safer.

Yes, reduced carbon emissions.

But absolutely fundamentally, guaranteed food security.

I believe this vision can become a reality.

All we need is the farming community to meet the challenges of the 21st century head-on, with confidence, ingenuity and creativity.

And for government to assist that process, by giving you more power, control and responsibility.

We're all in this together and, if everyone plays their part, British farming can look forward to a secure and prosperous future."

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