http://www.sd-commission.gov.uk/pubs/curry/02.htm#1

From vision to action:
SDC's perspective on the work of the Curry Commission

"The Curry Report recognises the multipurpose nature of food and agriculture policy - to produce good food, environmental stewardship and farm livelihoods simultaneously."

Part 2: Analysis of Curry Commission recommendations

Overview

10. In this section, we look at the recommendations of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Donald Curry. The recommendations are set out in the report Farming and Food: A Sustainable Future (the Curry Report). The report is analysed using the same appraisal system developed in Part 1.

11. Right at its start the report claims that 'Sustainable development has been our guiding principle' (p6) and the report largely lives up to this. Several strong themes of the report are very good in this respect. These are summarised below.

Highlights

12. The overarching idea is reconnection: 'The key objective of public policy should be to reconnect our food and farming industry: to reconnect farming with its market and the rest of the food chain; to reconnect the food chain and the countryside; and to reconnect consumers with what they eat and how it is produced' (p6) and again the recommendations would largely deliver this.

13. The Curry Report recognises the multipurpose nature of food and agriculture policy - to produce good food, environmental stewardship and farm livelihoods simultaneously.

14. The report unambiguously calls for a move away from production subsidies towards payments for other public wants, along with an associated suite of other measures (pp. 75-88) to support this. Existing schemes would become the higher tiers of a single new stewardship scheme. Lower tiers of this scheme would be potentially aimed at all land managers.

15. Public funding should pay for public 'goods' (including good environmental management): '[Production] subsidies are part of the problem, not the solution' (p 110): 'We therefore want to see the current regime of price supports and production subsidies dismantled as quickly as possible. Public money has to be refocused on real social and environmental public benefits' (p110). In the meantime, the report recommends 10% modulation and more support for agri-environment schemes.

16. The report recognises the need for stronger regulation and management, but in more coherent and rationalised forms: 'Current assurance schemes need to be rationalised behind the Red Tractor mark … We think that the Red Tractor should be a baseline standard that all food produced in England should attain. Without attempting to turn the scheme into a 'premium' mark, the Red Tractor should be extended to cover environmental standards — consumers already think it does — and welfare standards should be reviewed' (p117).

17. The report recognises that not all farms are the same, and provides specific measures to help hill farmers (p.85) and tenant farmers (57). Some of the positive and innovative specific measures proposed in the report include:

  • providing partial business rate relief for traders who provide more than a certain percentage of local foods (p45);
  • a robust suite of measures aimed at encouraging new entrants in the farming sector (p59);
  • consideration of food sourcing in public procurement (p104);
  • providing direct support payments to farmers in euros (p25).

"The Report does not consider the possible increase in reliance on imports,
and therefore decrease in food security, arising from its vision".

Gaps

18. 'Trade liberalisation is not going to go away'. There are a few references to the negative aspects of international trade - for example (in the context of risk of importing illnesses such as foot and mouth disease): 'Controls that are considered necessary for food safety in England should be enforced on imported food' (p116). The report also urges the Government to ensure that payments for environmental benefits are not struck down by WTO rules (p73). But the report fights shy of the general point - made very strongly in several of the submissions we reviewed - that the UK should be able to apply consistently to imports all kinds of standards - health, animal welfare, environmental - that are applied to home production.

19. As a consequence of this, many of the recommendations are about how to equip farmers better to survive and make a living in a global economy whose unsustainable trends and forces are taken as 'given'. Pages 112-116 give much attention to better training and capacity building for farmers in business management and skills such as marketing, use of benchmarking, demonstration farms, training, apprenticeships, and institutions to promote cooperation and collaboration between farms, and up and down the food chain. Much of this may well be desirable (indeed necessary) remedial action, and in particular, it will help potentially disadvantaged farmers make the difficult transition from production subsidies to payments for other public wants (Pillar 1 to Pillar 2). But it does not address the wider issues around world trade.

20. Food security. The report does not consider the possible increase in reliance on imports, and therefore decrease in food security, arising from its vision. It is possible that higher standards of home grown produce could lead to an increase in their price, leading more people to buy imported food. More extensive food production, stricter enforcement of import controls and higher standards of food quality can all cost more particularly if improved standards were also adopted for imported food. This could potentially have the worst effect on the poorest sectors of society.

21. Global resource impacts. There is brief mention of biofuels and combined heat and power. The recommendations for reducing agrochemical use would tend to reduce the energy intensity of farming. So would moves to more local sourcing and less animal transport. However the links between these and climate change are not made. Nor is the need to reduce mechanisation and road transport throughout the food chain - including processing, distribution and shopping.

"The report does not clearly identify many of the externalities of intensive farming - water pollution, high energy intensity of fertilisers etc. – and thus the extra costs that society pays for such production."

22. Externalities. The report does not clearly identify many of the externalities of intensive farming - water pollution, high energy intensity of fertilisers, flooding from more rapid rainwater run-off etc. – and thus the extra costs that society pays for such production. It also makes no mention of the transport and other environmental impacts of importing food, particularly by air. Nor does it address the issue of supermarkets charging (arguably unfair and inequitable) premiums on organic and other speciality foods.

23. Resilience. There is an excellent acknowledgement of the importance of food security right at the start: 'but land and expertise remain available if greater quantities of home-produced food are suddenly needed'. But beyond this there is almost no mention of the need for resilience to potential risks from climate change, global resource (e.g. oil) disruption, transport breakdowns etc. Increases in local sourcing and distinctiveness are seen as cultural benefits; shorter supply chains as a way to cut costs. None of them are recognised as prudent ways to increase security through diversity.

24. Organic farming. Several submissions to the Curry Commission called for targets to be set for organic food production, and such farming has clear sustainability benefits . However the report opts to simply consider organic food production under the heading of 'broad and shallow' environmental scheme and proposes the development of "a strategy" for organic food production (p88). This seems to miss an opportunity to promote a rapidly-growing and more sustainable form of food production.

25. Other users of the countryside. The report focuses strongly on farmers, but makes virtually no mention of the business sector that lost the most during the foot-and-mouth crisis - tourism. Nor does it explicitly address the many other rural businesses that are influenced by policies on farming, many of them operated by farmers as part of a diversified business.

How the Curry Report compares to SDC's objectives for sustainable agriculture

SDC objective How the Curry report deals with the objective
Produce safe, healthy food and non-food products in response to market demands, now and in the future. Generally good: Red Tractor scheme, promotion of short food chains and healthy food etc. Unclear about food security and cost.
Enable viable livelihoods to be made from sustainable land management, taking account of payments for public benefits provided. Good: shift away from production subsidies towards payments for other public wants, along with an associated suite of support measures, should provide more benefits at same cost. More advice and support to be offered to farmers, and measures taken to bring in new blood. But focus very much on farmers not rest of rural economy.
Operate within biophysical constraints and conform to other environmental imperatives. Indirect benefits from shift in subsidies etc., but no clear indication of biophysical constraints and whether/how they will be met.
Provide environmental improvements and other benefits that the public wants - such as re-creation of habitats and access to land. Yes: a key focus of the report.
Achieve the highest standards of animal health and welfare compatible with society's right of access to food at a fair price. Red Tractor scheme to be expanded to include animal welfare issues, EC to be pushed to improve animal welfare. So improvements, but not necessarily "highest standard".
Support the vitality of rural economies and the diversity of rural culture. Supports vitality of farm enterprises, but says little about other aspects of the rural economy. Diversity seen primarily as food diversity.
Sustain the resource available for growing food and supplying other public benefits over time, except where alternative land uses are essential in order to meet other needs of society. Should help to improve air, water and soil quality; public access to farmland encouraged. Some encouragement for organic food. Does not address GMO policy.

"The Government needs to take more account of the interests of other rural stakeholders, particularly rural businesses based on tourism, which were at the periphery of the Curry Commission's remit."

Conclusion

26. The vision set out in the Curry report is a good one, though lacking in some aspects of sustainability (global resource use, rural communities, resilience). Many of the recommendations are excellent, and most will promote sustainability. The language is admirably clear and free from euphemisms and evasions. The clear and unflinching call for fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and total redirection of public funding to buying public goods is outstanding.

27. Under this vision, we suspect that food production will become more extensive and more environment-friendly, consumer confidence will rise and local food production will be encouraged.

28. However there are some limitations, particularly the neglect of global resource impacts of food production and of the need for resilience in food production systems.

SDC's future work

29. One issue raised by the Curry Commission is the role of Government policies on food procurement. We will be carrying out a series of project on sustainable food procurement, looking at how the public sector can promote sustainable development in the way that it buys food. To start we are looking at the NHS, but we hope that many of our findings will be relevant to all public bodies. Later, we hope to work with contractors and producers to promote sustainable food procurement at all levels of the foodchain.

The challenge to Government

30. Government needs to look further down the food chain, beyond the narrow food production focus of the Curry Report. Retailers and consumers must lead rather than follow the drive towards more sustainable food.

31. As this exercise moves into the implementation stage, Government needs to take more account of the interests of other rural stakeholders, particularly rural businesses based on tourism, which were at the periphery of the Curry Commission's remit.

The challenge to Devolved Administrations

32. The remit of the Curry report was England only. However, we believe the same broad principles apply to food production in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Some of the Curry Report's recommendations will require Devolved Administrations to take action in parallel with the UK government if they are to be implemented. We urge the Devolved Administrations to take up the view of a sustainable farming and food sector promoted by the Curry Report.

33. We hope that DEFRA will take forward the Curry Report to create a genuinely sustainable farming and food sector.