Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Back to the future

One of my earliest memories of politics in agriculture was 1984 and the introduction of EU milk quotas to drain milk lakes that had been created by previous policies aimed at increasing output.

At the time I was working in my first full time job on a small farm that had gone out of milking cows in the seventies during the previous effort to reduce over production, known as the Golden Handshake.

The farm still had each cows name written on chalk boards above individual stalls, even after fifteen years the boss hadn't been able to take them down such was the emotional attachment to his animals.

Golden handshakes and quotas were and still are blunt instruments used by politicians determined to engineer simple solutions to complex agricultural issues and as today's dairy farmers complain that milk sells for less than water you’d be forgiven for thinking they haven’t work.

I'm not saying it’s wrong to have agricultural policies that encourage safe, sustainable, viable farming, far from it, food production is such a fundamental important business it would be wrong to leave it to the free market.

The problem seems to lie in the disconnect between what is actually possible on a farm and the time frame and what politicians and policy advisor's believe is possible and want to happen.

I clearly remember when quotas were introduced seeing angry, emotional dairy farmers on TV saying it wasn't possible to switch cows on and off like machines and having to send productive in calf animals to slaughter.

Today a familiar story but at the other end of the production continuum is coming out of Russia with calls to ramp up production to cover the shortfall in food supplies caused by the ban on EU and US imports.

This had led to a number of Russian ministers making unrealistic promises about replacing banned products by increasing output with no reference to how that was actually going to be achieved.

As one Russian cattle farmer recently said, “There were around 4 million beef cows in 1991, now there's only 1.5 million, increasing meat production cannot happen overnight, however badly the politicians want it…it's animals, not machines."

Echoes across thirty years from British farmers in 1984 to Russian farmers today.