Farm Ireland

Tuesday 19 September 2017

British policy change a step forward

Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

The extent to which food security has moved up the international political agenda was highlighted by recent comments from the UK agriculture minister, Hilary Benn.

Announcing a new food strategy for the UK at a farming conference in Oxford, the minister made the bold assertion that food security was now as important as energy security, and that securing both would have to be a priority.

This is a remarkable statement, and particularly from a British minister. With the exception of the two world wars, British policy since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s has been driven by a determination to source low-cost food for the country's industrial workers.

Protecting local producers was never a priority for Britain in peace time. However, that would now appear to have changed.

The strategy points out that the British spend in excess of €190bn on food and drink each year, and the sector employs 3.5m people.

It states that Britain will have to produce more food, in a more sustainable manner, and ensure that the produce safeguards consumers' health.

Interestingly, there was little talk of farmer incomes in the speech, even though ensuring a fair return for primary producers will be critical to the success of any drive to increase overall agricultural output.

What does the new policy initiative mean for Ireland?

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Very little is probably the short answer. However, if Britain is serious about making food security a key policy objective, it could have positive implications for EU budget negotiations.

British governments have not historically been very well disposed to CAP or the level of farming payments.

With key negotiations on EU spending kicking off this year, a British government more disposed to agriculture would certainly be a plus.

On the down side, Ms Benn's speech also focused on the need for more clarity on country of origin labels.

Given the importance of Britain for Irish food exports, this could be problematic.

Irish Independent