Category Archives: Food
Following our tenth entry: MP Andrew Gwynne, who successfully introduced the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act and worked long and hard to get justice for those who received contaminated blood through the NHS, we turn to Botswana, after reading an obituary by Emily Langer in the Independent. Her subject was Ketumile Masire – a statesman who described himself as ‘a farmer who has been drawn into politics’.
A summary with added links and photographs
Masire herded cattle before enrolling in a primary school at 13 and receiving a scholarship to attend a high school in South Africa that trained many leaders of the first government of independent Botswana. When his parents died he supported his siblings, becoming a headmaster. He later earned a Master Farmers Certificate, and having saved enough money to buy a tractor and became a successful farmer.
He served on tribal and regional councils and was a founder and secretary-general of the Botswana Democratic Party, now the country’s leading political party. He once travelled 3,000 miles of the Kalahari Desert to attend two dozen meetings over two weeks.
After serving as minister of finance and development planning and Vice President, Ketumile Masire became President of Botswana (1980-1998): roads and schools were built, healthcare improved, access to clean water expanded, farming techniques advanced and life spans extended.
The discovery of diamond reserves had transformed the country’s prospects and Masire continued to use the revenues for the public good after the death of his predecessor Seretse Khama.
He became ‘a model leader in a model nation on a continent where poverty, corruption and violence had crushed the hopes of many for stability and prosperity’.
After leading Botswana through a drought that persisted for much of the 1980s, he shared the Africa Prize for Leadership awarded by the Hunger Project in recognition of the food distribution efforts that helped the country avoid starvation during the crisis.
Though South Africa was Botswana’s major economic partner, Botswana opposed apartheid. “He had to walk a fine line in a really rough neighbourhood,” said Chester Crocker, a former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “He had to get along with everybody, without sacrificing his principles.”
After leaving office, in addition to tending the cattle on his ranch, Masire advised other African leaders and chaired an international panel that investigated the Rwandan genocide of 1994. He made important contributions to peace efforts in Congo and, more recently, Mozambique. He established a foundation which seeks to improve agriculture, governance and children’s health in the region.
He once said: “We have a saying in Botswana: A man is never strong until he says what he believes and gives other men the chance to do the same. I am proud to say without a doubt – we are a strong democracy.”
A more chequered account of his life is given in Wikipedia..
Sharma and the Agri-Brigade: bureaucrats and white collar workers lacking all essential survival skills, undermine food producers
In England, many organisations ostensibly concerned with the prosperity of farmers hold endless conferences. Analyst Devinder Sharma notes that, in India, agricultural universities, research institutes, public sector units, and other organisations also frequently gather to talk about ways to improve farmers’ income.
He comments sardonically that while the number of seminars/conferences on doubling the farmers’ income have doubled in the past few months, farmers increasingly sink into a cycle of deprivation.
As he points out, in both countries those who talk of allowing markets to provide higher farm incomes are the ones who get assured salary packets every month – we add that in England some are even paid from a levy on farmers.
The British farming press is now pointing out that large numbers of the UK’s 86,000+ family farmers are facing a threat from the government’s new universal credit (UC). If administered as currently designed, it will have a devastating impact on many of the UK’s most economically vulnerable family farms.
Universal credit will be ‘rolled out’ regionally by the DWP to cover the whole of UK by 2022 – calculated on monthly rather than annual income and it will assume that farmers have a “minimum income floor” which assumes that all applicants earn a wage equivalent to the national minimum wage of about £230 a week which is not the case. Private Eye (The Agri Brigade column) comments:
“None of this is remotely appropriate for farmers, and it shows the folly of trying to introduce a single universal form of income support for all.
On many family farms, where one or two people may work up to 250 acres, there is often no income for up to 10 or even 1 I months in a typical trading year. The sale of a crop of lambs, cattle or grain (or receipt of an EU subsidy) means revenue is raised in just one or two months of the year so the DWP’s assumption of a “basic income floor” each month doesn’t apply. There are also fears that receipts by claimants that rake their income above the basic floor in some months will disrupt entitlement to UC in subsequent months. (And farming losses in some months cannot be offset against a profit in others)”
Shades of the I, Daniel Blake experience:
When the UC administered by the DWP comes into force, skilled hard-working farmers will have to visit unfamiliar Job Centres to register for the benefit. ln addition. They will have to undergo face-to-face interviews over their eligibility for UC and be allocated a work coach to advise them on how to improve their access to better paid employment. Given the difficulties it seems certain many family farms currently claiming tax credits (administered by HMRC) will not apply for universal credit despite their poverty.
An unworkable system
Farming UK reports that a spokesman for the Ulster Farmers Union said: “UC makes it impossible to use prospective incomes or losses, which is often what farmers depend on. The fact that farming is seasonal where there will be long periods of time when a farmer will make a loss in expectation of more profitable times at some other stage during the year. In addition, having to do monthly real-time accounts is an extra burden upon farmers, in an already hard-pressed industry, and to hire someone to prepare these accounts would be an extra expense”.
As the title has it: “bureaucrats and white collar workers lacking all essential survival skills, undermine food producers”.
On BBC Radio 4 today it was reported that some supermarkets are limiting sales of fruit and vegetables.
A newspaper elaborates: “Morrisons and Tesco have limited the amount of lettuce and broccoli after flooding and snow hit farms in Spain. Shortages of other household favourites – including cauliflower, cucumbers, courgettes, oranges, peppers and tomatoes – are also expected. Prices of some veg has rocketed 40% due to the freak weather. Sainsburys admitted weather has also affected its stocks”.
HortiDaily reports on frost in Europe in detail (one of many pictures below) and the search for supplies from Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia.
A former Greenpeace Economist foresees these and more persistent problems in his latest book, Progressive Protectionism.
Alice Thomson continues: after Brexit there is a chance to redefine our relationship with the countryside. The system is skewed to the largest farms. Khalid Abdullah al-Saud received £400,000 last year in subsidies for his vast Juddmonte Farms, which breed racehorses. Such wealthy landowners are already benefiting from the inheritance tax exemption on farming land, and most don’t need the nearly £3 billion in direct subsidies from Brussels – mere pocket money.
Andrea Leadsom, the new environment secretary, said before the referendum that “it would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep and those with the hill farms do the butterflies”. But Britain should be going the other way, tapering payments so they promote small, innovative, often part-time farms to keep the countryside alive.
With the weak pound, supermarkets should be trying harder to champion local producers
In return farmers should be expected to become true custodians of the countryside – as many already are – planting more trees and hedgerows, helping with flood management, promoting good animal husbandry and richer soils.
Government’s penchant for relying on imported food involves increasing traffic flows, more congestion, more pollution, more road accidents, more calls for more motorway widening and more HGVs doing local deliveries clogging up roads.
Relying on imported food also reduces self-provisioning and self-reliance as impacts of climate change and overpopulation outstrip our ability to feed ourselves.
. . . if they continue to ‘reboot’ farm policy in favour of small family farms
“Not only do small family farms (defined as covering less than 250 acres and requiring the labour of one or two people) employ more people per acre and provide a wider variety of locally produced food than larger farms, but there is increasing evidence that they are less damaging to the environment.”
This passage in the latest Private Eye (1429) mentioned research findings published in a new state funded study carried out in the Netherlands and an online search added detail from the FT.
Dr Lidwien Smit, an environmental epidemiologist at Utrecht University, found that the biggest contribution to deaths linked with air pollution in Europe comes from agriculture, as risky to breathe as that in a traffic congested city.
She recommends that intensive farms in particular should be subjected to the same strict pollution rules as other industries.
In September, the study was presented to the European Respiratory Society’s international congress in London. Professor Stephen Holgate, the society’s science council chair said that the findings underline the need for governments to take tougher action on farm pollution: “It raises a very important issue; there needs to be much better monitoring of intensive farming’s pollution plumes that spread out across the neighbourhood”.
Private Eye reports that DEFRA is to use part of a £16m EU emergency dairy aid fund to help farmers ‘hit’ by very low milk prices to encourage grass-based farming systems.
The NFU, whose ‘lobby’ is often said to be dominated by large farmers that pay the biggest subscriptions) has, however, made ‘counter proposals’.
The farmer who writes for Private Eye, hopes – as we do – that DEFRA will ‘stick to its guns’ and also that all the UK’s regional governments and national assemblies will go on to make discrimination in favour of small-scale family farms central to farm policy in post-Brexit Britain.
Monbiot points out that the Leave campaigners have scarcely mentioned the European Union’s great bonfire of banknotes – not expenditure on quangos or relocating and running the institution but on farm subsidies at €55 billion a year.
Why? The leading Brexiters . . . denounce the transfer of public money from the rich to the poor but are intensely relaxed about the transfer of public money from the poor to the rich
Continuing “The leaders of the Remain campaign are no better”, Mr Monbiot points out that the payments would more accurately be described as land subsidies, as they are paid by the hectare. The poorest farmers who own or lease less than five hectares are excluded: “The more land you own or lease, the more public money you are given, so the richest people in Europe clean up. Oh, not just in Europe. Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes and Wall Street bankers have bought up tracts of European farmland, thus qualifying for the vast sums we shovel into their pockets”
These payments are not related to food production and surprisingly, though they are supposed to act as an incentive for environmental conservation, Monbiot comments that, in Westminster’s version of the European rules, ponds, wide hedges, reed beds, regenerating woodland, thriving salt marsh and trees sufficient to form a canopy are listed as “ineligible features . . . which need to be destroyed if farmers are to claim subsidies for the land on which they grow”. He describes the Common Agricultural Policy as “a €55bn incentive to destroy wildlife habitats and cause floods downstream”, noting that across Romania, farmers are beginning to realise that they can make money simply by mass felling of trees and destruction of wildlife, not for any productive purpose, but just to meet the European rules.
Monbiot ends, “I will vote In on Thursday, as I don’t want to surrender this country to the unmolested control of people prepared to rip up every variety of public spending and public protection except those that serve their own class . . .
The Telegraph reported that in March more than 1,000 farmers travelled to London to urge the Government to do more to help Britain’s struggling farmers. Coachloads of protesters arrived in Westminster to take part in a march organised by campaign group Farmers for Action. The organisation says it wants the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to recognise that there is “a major problem” in one of Britain’s oldest industries.
“We can produce the best food you can buy. But we have to be able to make a profit. Currently that is not the case”.
David Handley, a dairy farmer in Monmouth South Wales who organised the protest, said: “We keep getting soundbites from ministers, saying they’re listening and have a 25-year strategy plan. But the majority of farmers here today want to know how they will get through the next 12 months. Falling prices across the industry are making production unsustainable. People cannot take this any longer”.
See the video, fronted by BBC Midlands Today news correspondent David Gregory-Kumar (left).
Low wholesale prices for goods including milk and cereal have caused income to plummet for many farmers across the UK. Growing competition from global markets and increasingly fierce supermarket price wars have intensified the problems.
In The Times, David Handley (Farmers for Action, below right) stressed that all sectors of the farming industry are under severe financial pressure and many are not even covering their costs of production and that this cannot be allowed to continue:
“The government shows no appetite to sort this out, merely issuing the occasional soundbite. When an industry gets in such a crisis we feel our government should lead from the front. We are not looking for handouts, but we need some answers.
“Do they want us to work in a free market, which is not operating a level playing field and the weakest producers keep going to the wall? Or do they really want British farmers to feed British people and also sell our products on the global stage – which would boost the productivity of our industry and also increase funds to the Treasury?
“If the answer is that we are to work in a free market, with no protection whatsoever from importation of products which do not meet our standards, then Mr Cameron has a moral obligation to tell the industry that this is the path he wishes to take and therefore farmers will be able to make a decision about their futures.
“If the answer is that he wants British farmers to feed British people, then he has to answer a number of questions:
- Is he going to provide a level playing field?
- Is he going to give all the tools necessary to play on the global stage?
If the answers are yes to the above then he has an obligation to step forward with a strategy that clearly tells British farmers it will be profitable for them”.
In a comment on this article, Phillip Cozens summarised:
The government presides over a situation in which last year we imported 70% of the food consumed in the UK. This is utter madness, strategically, environmentally, economically. Support for indigenous food production, with the realistic potential to be self sufficient, if the need arises, should again be a national priority. This is probably more important for our security than having a nuclear deterrent.
As Northern Ireland farmers combine to continue their cross-party diplomacy MP Nigel Evans has been contacted by his constituent, a Lancashire dairy farmer.
The message opens by referring to a question by Richard Arkless (SNP Dumfries & Galloway) on the 29th January to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asking what steps the Government is taking to support milk producers in ensuring milk prices in supermarkets are maintained.
George Eustice (minister for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment) responded that the government is supporting the farming industry by reducing red tape. The farmer corrects this answer:
“This is untrue in the case of dairy farmers whose financial risk and responsibility is great and whose product is highly perishable”.
“In fact, dairy farmers are increasingly being required to spend precious time producing statistical information of little worth other than to help meet the targets of individuals within large and powerful organisations whose employment is indirectly funded by taxpayers or by compulsory levy imposed upon producers”.
The minister referred to a £26.6m aid package for the UK from the EU – a one-off, flat rate payment linked to milk production – administered by DEFRA’s Regional Payments Agency.
Did it arrive? FG Insight reports that once again, “Thousands of farmers across the UK are suffering frustrating and, in some cases, crippling waits for their new Basic Payments as administrations to struggle with the new scheme.”. A Freedom of Information request reveals that nearly 8,927 farmers have been placed in the late payment tranche alongside 4,722 commons farmers, 379 cross-border claims and 342 with ’multiple issues’. It revealed that the assessment about these payments had been made back in August. Computer Weekly confirms that – after successive software releases failed to resolve problems – a £154m system to process claims for EU subsidy payments to farmers hit problems has forced applicants to resort to paper forms.
Our farming correspondent points out that the RPA will be fined by the EU for this delay at British taxpayers expense, if deadlines are not met.
Describing the ‘solutions’ offered by industry advisers and financial institutions, encouraging farmers to increase borrowings, expand herd sizes and increase production, it is feared that these will “intensify an already precarious situation, as efficient non-aligned British dairy farmers struggle to meet ordinary running costs let alone make essential reinvestments”.
The Lancashire dairy farmer ends, “For dairy farmers, real progress and growth does not come from individual enterprises ruthlessly undercutting and competing with each other to counter inappropriate commercial or government interference, but by ebbing and flowing with the tide and doing what is best in their own district for their own farm, their own family, their own animals and their own environment, with the resources available, as an integral part of the wider rural community”.