David Cameron (and David Miliband) has spoken to the Oxford Farming Conference today.  Here are the key themes from the Tory leader’s wide-ranging speech:

Britain’s beautiful countryside depends upon farmers: "It cannot be said too often that the fact that our countryside is one of our most precious national assets is not in spite of farming but because of farming.   I live on the edge of the Cotswolds where both the landscape and the architecture reflect centuries of successful agriculture.  Farming continues to be one of our hardest working industries and no one who cares about the future of this country can afford to ignore the countryside."

Margaret Beckett should have been held account for the RPA farce: "The Government has been guilty of rank inefficiency. The saga of the Rural Payments Agency and late payments was a complete disgrace.  In any other walk of life the person ultimately in charge would have to take responsibility. In politics, in this country, under this government, they get made foreign secretary."

Food security: "In this dangerous world, where we talk about the importance of energy security, we cannot afford to dismiss the importance of food security.  No one is suggesting that we operate a war economy, but a country like Britain that is blessed with so much fertile land would be foolish not to have the capacity to produce a significant percentage of its food.  Farming is about food production and, in an increasingly unsettled and dangerous world, this fact alone should ensure a proper recognition of the importance of agriculture."

Green farming: "Everyone now understands the importance of combating climate change.  Farmers have a huge role to play in this and other environmental challenges. The new products and new markets are genuinely exciting.  I saw many of them at this year’s Royal Show.  Wool for home insulation.  Willow coppicing providing fuel for local boilers.  Hemp turned into breeze blocks.  There’s also significant scope to grow energy crops to make bio-diesel and bio-ethanol and produce biomass for heat and power."

Honest labelling of food and ‘food patriotism’: "I’m convinced that the long term interest of British farming is best served by British consumers demanding quality British produce.  A vital part of facilitating this shift in priorities is ensuring that this country has far more rigorous and transparent food labelling.  Today British consumers can find it difficult to back British farmers, because of inadequate labelling. Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it’s genuinely British.   That is completely wrong."

Competition policy must apply to supermarkets: "The supermarkets have been in the habit of using their market power to squeeze the margins of those they buy from.  Let’s be honest: in the past there have been some real horror stories; Retrospective discounting; Making producers pay for promotions; and, according to the NFU, even instances of suppliers being required to supply labour to stack shelves.  There is evidence that the supermarkets are addressing some of these concerns but there is no room for complacency.  To me this issue is quite clear. These sorts of practices are completely unacceptable. The competition authorities are there for a purpose. They have the authority and the powers they need. They should feel empowered to act.  We will be watching to make sure that they do."

CAP and WTO: "We also need to start to shift the costs of CAP onto the countries that spend the most by phasing in co-financing.  Finally we need to ensure it is sustainable in WTO terms by phasing out export subsidies and by shifting funding from pillar one into pillar two."

Less bureaucracy for farmers: "Issues such as cross compliance, multiple inspections, the ban on on-site burial and integrated pollution control will all have to be looked at again.  We can learn a good deal from other countries in the EU, who would not think of burdening their farmers with the bureaucracy you have to endure."

Animal welfare: "Just as we insist that every Japanese car imported into the UK meets strict emission standards so we should insist that animal products meet decent welfare standards."

Organic food: "People are increasingly uneasy about some of the pesticides and antibiotics used in agriculture – especially abroad.  That’s why we’re witnessing the growth in the organic market."

The public sector should buy more local food: "We need a revolution in food procurement.  The Government spends £1.8bn each year on food for the public sector.  That gives it a lot of clout in the marketplace.  Ministers launched the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative in 2003 to encourage public bodies to procure locally source food.  But there’s a problem.  The Government has no way of measuring its progress towards achieving this.  Therefore, it has no idea if its procurement policies are ignoring British produce and contributing to climate change.  The Government should be doing everything it can within EU rules to source food for schools, hospitals and other public institutions locally."

David Cameron is surely right to suggest that the growth of consumer demand for organic and locally-sourced produce could be a major source of future revenue for British farmers but are consumers right to want this kind of food.  The Economist (subscription required) recently raised some powerful objections to both:

"Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world’s current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest…"

"The case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain’s food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff.  What’s more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive. And the local-food movement’s aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce. But since the local-food movement looks suspiciously like old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point."

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