Speakers agree to disagree at South East Farming Conference

TSpeakers in a lively debate at the South of England Farming Conference on November 12, chaired by BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Food Programme’ presenter Sheila Dillon, did not find consensus on the question ‘Who can afford food produced in Britain?’ but explored a range of important issues facing the UK food production industry.

In front of an audience of 250 farmers at the South of England Showground in Ardingly, NFU President and Bedford farmer Peter Kendall sparred with Stephen Carr, South Downs National Park farmer and journalist, on issues ranging from the Single Farm Payment to how farmers should best engage with supermarkets in the UK.

Stephen Carr described the Single Farm Payment as ‘corrupting’ and having a ‘catrastrophic affect on farming since it was introduced in 2005’, saying that it simply ‘rewards landowners for owning land, rather than encouraging food production’. He said that as a result of this subsidy reform, it was virtually impossible now to make money out of farming beef or lamb in the UK.

Peter Kendall, however, described the problems with the previous subsidies per livestock head as causing food mountains and a range of other problems. However, he also said that changes should be market led and not driven by policy makers in London, citing the ‘stall and tether’ restrictions imposed on the pig industry in the ‘90s as a case in point, as it ‘halved the pig industry in Britain, replacing it with imported, untraceable pork, produced abroad at lower welfare levels’. He also said that with the population growth in the UK, food security is right back on the agenda.

Third speaker Nick Hempleman, owner of the award-winning Sussex Produce Company in Steyning and former fair trade advocate at The Co-operative Group, concluded that most people in the UK could afford to eat British food and decried the fact that people feel they should only spend ten percent of their income on food and twice as much on alcohol and tobacco in one of the richest countries in the world.

He said that just four retailers control 75 per cent of the grocery market in the UK and this created a very insecure position for farmers and consumers and has caused ‘devastation’ in the countryside, with huge numbers of small retailers failing.

However, his position was to call on the people  to take responsibility for what they put in their shopping baskets and their mouths. He said that ‘convenience is another word for laziness’ and asked why people found it ‘easier to choose a special offer than something special to cook, especially when you consider that the British spend more on cookery books than any other country in the EU’.

Picture 1Sheila Dillon pointed out that our real challenge is to make food affordable and available to all parts of British society as well as inspiring people to cook, which schools can go some way to helping with domestic science classes being re-introduced to schools shortly.

Other solutions discussed through  questions and answers session focused around how to educate people so that they choose British food ahead of imports, including the importance of farm visits and stronger legislation to tackle ‘outrageous’ issues such as meat labelling whereby foreign meat can be cut and re-packaged in the UK and labelled as British.

Said Sheila Dillon, “Tonight was a really interesting experience, with some enjoyable banter between the speakers, but some really quality points raised, I would be keen to come back again.”

“People return to this event year on year as they know they can expect to hear from some of the most interesting speakers in the industry.  We would like to thank Sheila Dillon and our speakers for a very exciting debate and our sponsors for helping us hold another very successful conference,” said Matthew Berryman from the South of England Society, who organises the event.

The Farming Conference was sponsored this year by Mayo Wynne Baxter, Complete Land Management (CLM), Chavereys, Dowsett Mayhew, R and B Construction Southern Ltd and South East Farmer.

Notes to editors:

Sheila Dillon is well known for tackling some of the toughest issues in the food and farming industry and the South of England Agricultural Society. In 2008 Sheila was awarded an honorary doctorate by City University for her work, which includes the citation “has changed the way in which we think about food”.

A food journalist for almost three decades, some of Sheila’s most notable work includes the breaking scandal of BSE, the rise of GM goods, the growth of the organic movement from muck and magic to multi-million pound business, the birth of the World Trade Organisation and irradiation at a time when those subjects were not even a gleam in a newshound´s eye.

Stephen Carr, local South Downs National Park farmer and writer for several farming and national titles is known for his outspoken views on farming and it’s future in the UK. He has many years of experience of sheep, cattle and grain farming as well as organic production which part of his farm is now converted to.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall sits on a range of bodies in the UK and Europe, but at the top of his list of priorities is ensuring that the central role of commercial agriculture and horticulture in tackling the dual challenges of food security and climate change – and the pressing need for the sustainable intensification of agriculture – is recognised by those in power in the UK and Europe.

Nick Hempleman runs The Sussex Produce Company, an award-winning food shop in Steyning. He spent five years working at the Head office of The Co-operative Group, the UK’s largest farming landowner and supermarket, before opening his own business in 2007.

In the last six years he has won the title of Sussex Food Shop of the Year twice, been a finalist on a further three occasions, been a finalist in Greengrocer of the Year 2013 and most recently in October, was named as one of the best independent food shops in the country by The Observer in their annual 2013 Food Awards.

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