In the Godfather, a film producer who annoys the Corleone mafia family wakes up with the head of one of his thoroughbred horses in his bed.
For his criticism of an anti-farming campaign by a society representing vegans, the UFU president risked the same fate, but with a carrot or cabbage. Joking apart, the points made by the UFU criticising anti-farming posters needed to be said. This is not about a lifestyle choice, but about the tactics used to target farmers, who meet the needs of the 99.5 per cent of the population who are not vegan.
A similar issue has also been raised in Europe, with the meat industry querying the legality of how some vegetarian products are sold. The lobby organisations for the meat industry, Clitravi, has questioned how ‘meat’ terms can be used to sell vegetarian food. They use as examples vegetarian meat, salami, hamburgers and even chicken spelt as chiken. This is not an attack on those who for ethical or other reasons are vegetarian, but on the failure of the European Commission to implement its own labelling rules. These are designed to ensure that what is said on the packets is as clear and unambiguous as possible, and Clitravi believes this is not the case with some of these products.
That is an argument the dairy industry could advance even more over products like soy and almond milk, but for its own reasons it has decided not to hit back at retail labels or the poster campaigns denigrating dairy farmers. It is unlikely Brussels will take action over ‘vegetarian meat’ products, but this is as much about publicity as action. Whether that is in Europe or the UFU challenging Go Vegan World here over its posters it is about not being a soft touch and a willingness to articulate the views of members.
Back on Brexit, a report from the Dutch Rabobank has suggested that to become more efficient when the level of government support to agriculture falls after Brexit, livestock farmers will have to embrace more technology. The bank is using the phrase PLF for precision livestock farming. This is about better data capture on farms and better analysis of that information, along the lines of precision farming in the arable sector. This makes sense, but a wider Brexit question is how efficient the government will allow UK agriculture to be. Before the referendum last year Brexit advocates held out a vision of a science-driven, globally competitive UK farming industry after Brexit.
When the election is over, hopefully with a minister at DEFRA with more interest in farming, the government will need to make clear whether it still believes in escaping some of the onerous restrictions imposed by the EU. Many of these block science and adopt an over-cautious stance on environmental protection. This approach chimes well with many people in the UK as well as in the EU-27, meaning it is far from certain how committed the government is to a globally competitive UK farming industry. Whatever it decides farmers will be under pressure to become more efficient. Support will fall, and assuming prices will not rise, farmers can only respond to that by reducing costs and becoming more efficient.
As we head towards the Brexit door, we all now look differently at what commissioners and others say in the EU. We are probably glad we will be out of a new drive, backed by the farm commissioner Phil Hogan, to base the post-2020 CAP around ‘agro-ecological’ principles, which sounds like more greening and a move away from competitive agriculture. However we could all share the views of the EU trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, who warned this week that global trade can not be a race to the bottom in terms of prices. That is a view many will share as we watch the latest scandal unfold in the Brazilian beef industry. Were we staying in the EU we would be more than happy to see that view pursued. However what we need are similar comments from whoever is the UK minister responsible to trade negotiations after the election, and given the drive to open new markets that seems less likely. This is proof that the EU, like the proverbial curate’s egg, is good in some parts but not in others. The challenge for farming is to secure the best and lose the rest, and that will not be easy.