Agriculture is worth subsidising as insurance

By request from BenS.

No.

We do, of course, want to have some system of ensuring that the 70 odd million people of the country manage to gain enough food to keep themselves alive. We do thus want to have some sort of system that does this.

We would also like said system to be as robust as possible. For we know what failure of the food production and supply system means, famine.

So, what system is it that we should have?

The obvious point about agriculture is that it is dependent upon weather and other conditions in the place where it happens. It is possible for there to be infestations, droughts, floods, which entirely wipe out all food production in a specific geographic area for an entire year, sometimes even longer. Ireland and potatoes is only one such example.

Thus a robust food system gathers in food from many different geographic areas. For that is the manner in which we can gain access to the needed calories even if production in one area fails. This is true not just of us of course, it’s true of everyone.

Imagine, just to invent some numbers, that there are 100 food producing areas around the world and 100 food consumption areas. The most robust system possible would have each of the 100 areas gaining 1% of their food supply from each of the 100 producing areas.

This isn’t all that far off the number of countries in the world. If insurance, robustness, were out only determinant then we would want to have very much more international trade (or at least, across geographic areas) than we do now.

Now, of course, robustness is not the only desired feature of a food supply system. We would also like to have as much robusity as we desire at the least economic cost. So we are going to balance transport costs (there’s little point in hauling turnips around the world while the transport cost of coffee is an irrelevance) against that desired robusity.

But if insurance were what we were after we would not be supporting domestic agriculture. We would, instead, be supporting agriculture in other geographic areas. Thus the idea that we must cosset domestic agriculture as a method of insurance is entirely and completely the wrong answer.

82 thoughts on “Agriculture is worth subsidising as insurance”

  1. This makes sense, but isn’t the motivation for growing your own food political rather than economic?

    When more of your food comes from other countries, it gives those other countries political leverage over your country, since they can bargain with your food supply.

  2. How much of what we buy is not really capable of being produced here in sufficient quantity?
    I would guess quite a lot. Never mind what is not capable of being produced here cheaply or the fact we cannot feed ourselves from the island chain anyway.
    Nor the imported stocks of seed, the imported equipment or made in UK equipment with foreign parts.
    Trying to be strategically independent of other countries for food appears to be a really bad idea. Unless say 40 million people move overseas?

  3. TW: … the idea that we must cosset domestic agriculture as a method of insurance is entirely and completely the wrong answer.

    True but there are other reasons for supporting domestic agriculture.

  4. Hmm. You’re assuming unending peace, Tim. Which is a hell of an assumption.

    I’ve said for years that we should have enough agriculture subsidy to ensure that we retain farming knowledge — and that this should be paid out of the MoD’s budget.

  5. “When more of your food comes from other countries, it gives those other countries political leverage over your country, since they can bargain with your food supply.”

    That assumes that there’s no substitution available and that the farmers in those countries are happy with that. You wouldn’t have heard many people objecting to not exporting things to Argentina in 1982, but do the farmers of Isigny care that we left the EU more than they care about flogging us butter?

  6. S2,

    “Hmm. You’re assuming unending peace, Tim. Which is a hell of an assumption.”

    I seriously doubt there will be a land war in Europe in my lifetime. The motivations behind wars were all about gaining agricultural land, and that’s just not worth the blood and treasure since we got tractors and combines.

  7. Squander2 : IIRC, the UK hasn’t had facilities for manufacturing Challenger 2s for a few years now. Cobham armour is made solely in the US. The Nimrod maritime surveillance fleet was recently retired and replaced with precisely nothing.

    What is it you want to do with the MoD again?

  8. > The motivations behind wars were all about gaining agricultural land

    All?

    That’s what Jerusalem is, is it? Agricultural land? Genghis Khan sacked Samarkand over breach of diplomatic immunity.

    French security forces regard France as already being in a state of civil war. And not one single person involved in it gives the remotest damn about agriculture.

    War happens for lots of reasons. Supply chains can be screwed for lots of reasons.

  9. Retaining knowledge is important although I am not sure how difficult it is to buy in. The Japanese did it and it still took them a goodly number of years to catch up (and then overtake) in manufacturing.

    I read somewhere that some American manufacturers maintained plants in the US even though it was not economic. When Chinese salaries reach a certain point they can choose to manufacture close to home.

    Here in Spain, Inditex wants to manufacture more locally. The Chinese who now pay wages closer to low Portuguese wages, want massive orders, one colour, one delivery and paid upfront. The Portuguese are almost price competitive and allow several colours, small orders, next-day delivery at low cost and pay after.

    Spain lost all its textile manufacturing base when manufacturing shifted overseas and the companies closed.

    Inditex can’t do the same as it used to in Spain. And yes we do want the low added-value manufacturing jobs. We have 50% youth unemployment with many not finishing schooling in the South.

    I remember this from maybe 18 months ago. Not sure how it has worked out since then. Maybe investments have been made and ground made up.

  10. Not just Inditex. There’s quite a business in getting bulk orders made in China with long lead times then topping up best sellers with Portuguese production just in time.

  11. Bloke in North Dorset

    “When more of your food comes from other countries, it gives those other countries political leverage over your country, since they can bargain with your food supply.”

    In theory those other countries need our supply to cope with their own risks.

    What worries me in all this talk about food security and MI5 claiming we’re only 4 meals away from food riots is that politicians think they need to do something. As Venezuela and Zimbabwe have shown most recently, politicians doing something to ensure cheap food is that fastest way to mass shortages and a crippled economy.

  12. If here is to be no land war why are there huge armies in existence in china, usa etc.

    A few submarines near brought Britain to its knees in ww2,
    A pestilence might put an embargo on food / people movement.
    Still a bit of starvation would solve the obesity problem.

  13. When more of your food comes from other countries, it gives those other countries political leverage over your country, since they can bargain with your food supply.

    1. There are lots and lots of countries out there, the important ones have strong cultural and historical ties to Britain. Unlikely enough would form an alliance against us or even want to.

    2. Britain hasn’t been able to grow enough food to feed the population since at least the late 19th century. Even with intensive modern farming methods it just ain’t possible.

    3. The best food security is diversity of supply and a strong Navy. The worst food security is localism, organic farming methods and disarmament.

    Guess which option in point (3) is the fashionable one amongst our clinically insane establishment?

  14. Yes, diverse supply good. Good for prices, good for having tasty forrin stuff and not having to live on turnips all the time, good for poor people in poor parts of the world. All good. Until that war that was mentioned. Or until countries ban exports to keep domestic prices low (happened this decade).

    Insurance is for the unpredictable, for the catastrophes, not for the fair weather conditions we have had for some time.

  15. S2 – get out of bed the wrong side this morning, or are there no Z-listers in the lobby for you to take it out on?

    The point is, that the Ministry of Defence, being you know, actually responsible for defence, with like a budget and everything, should be capable of ensuring that the capability for something resembling a defence to occur were it to be, you know, actually required. Given that the UK currently can not manufacture it’s own MBTs, or their armour (envy of the world, doncha know), and is hiring AEW capability, probably from the lowest bidder, does that not demonstrate a fairly major fail strategy-wise by government? Do you have confidence that any government agency could act strategically and continue to do so? How long would it be before politics began to happen?

    There. I even used the word ‘should’ as well.

  16. The economic argument for subsidising agriculture is that it is cheaper than paying for more houses to be built in the overcrowded south-east and the JSA and Housing Benefit for thoseliving in them. [It always keeps down the price that we have to pay for imports below what it would be if we couldn’t produce any food]
    This does put a cap on the amount of subsidy that is far, far lower than the cost of the EU’s CAP.
    When we look at the cost of maintaining an industry, we also need to look at the cost of not doing so.

  17. Bloke in Wiltshire, the reasons to go to war do vary.
    Crimean war was over who held the keys to the door of a church.
    WW2 in Europe was partly revenge, partly living space, partly unwillingness to back down. In Asia it was over access to resources – not agricultural land.
    Resources are a fairly common reason to go to war – as is boosting your own economy and popularity.

  18. Insurance is for the unpredictable, for the catastrophes, not for the fair weather conditions we have had for some time.

    Except that we cannot, and never will be able to, feed our population on what we can grow just in these islands. Not even close.

  19. Ducky,

    No, it seems I’ve used up my sleb allowance.

    My point was simply that you appear to be arguing with me as if I’ve taken up a contrary position to you. I didn’t say the UK has an excellent defence capability. I didn’t say we’re building as many planes or ships as we should. So why are you arguing?

    All I said was that farming subsidies are pointless for economic reasons, hence should not be paid by economic government departments for economic reasons, but are still quite sensible for defence reasons, hence should be paid out of the defence budget.

    I am of course aware that the MoD are approximately as useless as every other government department. I don’t see how that affects my point, honestly. It was quite a little point, that hardly warranted this much arguing.

  20. Rob,

    > Except that we cannot, and never will be able to, feed our population on what we can grow just in these islands. Not even close.

    So? Even if we spent as much on defence as we should, we wouldn’t be able to protect the life of every single person in the country in the event of a missile attack. Our security services foil terrorist plots regularly, but they cannot prevent every single one. The nature of defence is not to save everyone; it is to save some.

  21. You might want to subsidise rural population, rather than agriculture. In Italy there are calls (from the left-wing urban media) for African migrants to come and live in rural villages which have depopulated as people moved to the cities. Subsidising the native population to live there would choke off that nonsense.

    Most Western countries already do subsidise rural areas with universal provision of government services (e.g. sending teachers to remote Scottish islands to teach at a school of just seven kids). It’s a low price to pay to keep those islands free of marauding Vikings.

  22. Hallowed be – if north korea set off a nuke in London how does membership of nato remain our security of supply?
    If France is attacked by terrorists how does membership of Nato provide security of supply for us? If Russia attacks the West in multiple ways how does membership of Nato provide security of supply?

  23. “Except that we cannot, and never will be able to, feed our population on what we can grow just in these islands. Not even close.”

    I keep seeing this stated, but without much in the way of evidence.

    From memory about 60% of UK food consumption is sourced from the UK. If we add in our food exports, unused land from set-asides and so on, plus the fact that most of us could afford to eat a lot less it seems that the UK shouldn’t have any trouble feeding itself.

  24. @ Hallowed Be

    In theory. However, NATO wasn’t much help when General Galtieri got uppity so it’s dangerous to underestimate one’s allies’ capacity for equivocation when it might suit them.

  25. Thanks Tim, very much appreciate.
    This is the kind of ‘economics for dummies’ that I would pay for (says he).

    Rob: “diversity of supply and a strong Navy”

    I’ll go with that.

  26. That’s because the Falkland Islands aren’t in the _North Atlantic_.

    And, of course, some NATO members were a lot of help. But not the French, obviously. Or the Belgians (for whatever reason). But, then again, at least one nominally British defence company wasn’t exactly forthcoming about what it had supplied to Argentina, either.

  27. MattyJ – so we could not feed ourselves during WW2 but now with a lot more population, a lot less of whom are skilled in growing food or caring for farm animals, and with less land available, we could feed ourselves?
    Sorry I do not think you are right.

    And what happens when, as has happened in recent years, there is some bad weather, flooding, poor harvests? Who are you willing to die so you can survive?

  28. @ Andrew M
    OK, but a judicious combination of the two is preferable because gets a better overall result *and* is more cost-effective.

  29. > And what happens when, as has happened in recent years, there is some bad weather, flooding, poor harvests? Who are you willing to die so you can survive?

    That’s a total non-sequitur. No-one (here) is talking about relying entirely on a UK-grown food supply all the time. All we’re suggesting is that, given that unpredictable disasters or atrocities can happen, it makes sense to have some back-up food-production capability. You’re just saying “Ah, but what if there’s another different disaster?” Well, it would be disastrous, obviously. But you can do that with anything. What if our new aircraft carrier is sunk in a storm? What if our telecoms network is taken out by a hacker? If we never do anything that could conceivably fail, then we never do anything.

  30. john malpas,

    “If here is to be no land war why are there huge armies in existence in china, usa etc.”

    I wouldn’t describe their armies as huge. The US military is 1/3rd the size of what it was in 1956, when the population was half the size.

    You still need an army. You still want a disincentive to invasion. Stealing land still has value. But it isn’t worth much and it’s disruptive to trade to fight.

    The reason the Middle East is constantly kicking the crap out of each other is that they still have the old incentives of Philip of Spain and Henry VIII’s times. They don’t produce much, don’t trade much. You get rich in that area by owning land with oil under it. So, they’re fighting over land (this is also why intervening is pointless).

  31. @Martin: I’m not advocating for self sufficiency, far from it. I agree with Tim’s argument above. I simply don’t think the argument that the UK couldn’t feed itself (ignoring famine) is supported by the facts.

    During WW2 farming was still very labour intensive, I believe it was still the major employer. As a result farm productivity suffered when most of the young men were drafted or working in munitions factories.

    Farm technology’s also moved on since then. We get a lot more food per acre now.

  32. john77,
    Subsidising agricultural production means farmers in e.g. Norfolk make out like bandits, but hill farmers on marginal land still struggle and end up going out of business.

    I should clarify that my suggestion is not intended to be taken literally. There isn’t any good reason to subsidise people who wish to live on isolated Scottish islands. We already do subsidise them in many indirect ways (through universal service provision, as described earlier), and often with the same argument that if we didn’t, the islands would be empty. But so what if they are? Are the Russians going to move in instead?

  33. Won’t any serious shooting war be over long before the next crop can even be harvested? It seems to me that everyone is thinking long drawn out wars that take years to prosecute, as in the 20th century. Modern weaponry is so complex and has such a long lead production time any war is basically going to be fought with what the combatants have in stock – whoever runs out of stock first loses. Plus the people using them are highly trained – you can’t stick anyone in a Typhoon and expect them to be able to fly it. Ditto MBT etc etc. Run out of trained personnel and you’re toast as well, regardless of how much weaponry you still have in hand.

    So unless you run your agriculture system/food supply chain on a war footing all the time, providing the population with 80% plus of their needs, there is no way that the extra food can be produced at the flick of a switch, even if the capacity is there. Grain stocks are fixed from the previous harvest. Dairy production is fixed by the length of time it takes to breed extra dairy cattle (2 years), beef production runs on a 2 year cycle, vegetables are annuals, particularly the bulk root crops. You could ramp up poultry and pig production in a shorter timescale, but that would depend on the availability of extra grain to feed them.

    Which is a long way of saying Western societies are fucked in the event of serious war – their food supply chains are too dependent on foreign food, and the time would not exist to increase their own production before the shooting was all over.

  34. Jim, a short, sharp, war, over by Christmas? like Syria I guess.

    maybe the UK could not become self sufficient, but Europe probably could. in any case, a higher production level will keep you going longer in Jim’s short sharp war.

  35. @ Andrew M
    Did you read my earlier post? I am advocating selective subsidies at a very small fraction of the cost of CAP where the cost is justified by savings elsewhere.
    We subsidise the unemployed in London by far more per head than the residents of the Shetlands or the Western Isles.
    I

  36. A short sharp war is one of the great myths of the 20th and 21st centuries.
    Look at Afghan war and Iraq war – quick occupation, rather long time we are still fighting, then we pull out and the locals win. Again. As we keep on doing in those countries.
    Japanese attack on pearl harbor – again a short sharp war was planned. Look how that ended.
    The French invasion of Germany 1939 – look how that ended. The German invasion of half of Poland is probably one of the few instances of the method working.

  37. NATO Article 5:

    The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

    While accepting the pendantry, the FI aren’t in North America or Europe.

  38. john77,

    Yes, but you have to set the right target, not just a similar one. It’s like the Nestlé thread: if you want fewer plastic bottles, just slap a tax on them: don’t faff around with groundwater extraction permits.

    If you want people to live year-round in the Outer Hebrides, then pay them to do so. If you merely subsidise wool production, you’ll get lots of sheep and one robot or drone sheepdog, which the landowner controls from his cosy home on the mainland.

    Don’t forget that modern farming has eliminated a lot of jobs through technology; no amount of agricultural subsidy will bring back those jobs.

  39. “We subsidise the unemployed in London by far more per head than the residents of the Shetlands or the Western Isles.”

    Which is one of the stupidest things we do. You want to get people out of the South East? Stop paying housing benefit and pay people a living benefit that takes no account of geography. If it cost people a lot more, they’d soon leave London.

  40. “A short sharp war is one of the great myths of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

    Thats because wars these days are specifically NOT all out wars, They are regionally contained, with very controlled rules of engagement from any Western powers involved. The Western (incl Russia) belligerents in Iraq, Syria etc could end the thing inside a week if it was just a case of annihilating everyone in sight. And the wars in the Middle East haven’t exactly impinged on the food supply in the West either have they? What we keep being scaremongered about is the all out ‘kill them before they kill us’ type war, submarines blocking the nation, that sort of thing. And if one of those happens it will be over very quickly, massive destruction in short space of time, done. If Russia wished to raze Western Europe to the ground (in a non-nuclear way) its either going to succeed very quickly or fail very quickly. Its not going to be 250mph bombers lumbering across the North Sea dropping their bombs at random is it?

  41. @ BiW
    I am more cynical than you – I do not think it was stupid, I think it was deliberate policy to create a permanently resentful underclass of reliable Labour voters.

  42. Jim,

    Yes yes yes, but what I’m suggesting is that a nation-state should have some back-up food-production capability. You’re providing a list of things that the back-up wouldn’t work for. OK, sure. That doesn’t mean there are no other things it would work for.

    Some examples, off the top of my head:

    . nuclear explosions or dirty bombs set off by terrorists contaminating the food we’d usually get from France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Spain, Kenya… — a lot of the popular targets make food for us;
    . some sort of pestilence affecting crops that we’d usually get from wherever;
    . the EU collapsing into a range of civil wars, reducing their production;
    . a significant number of economic fuckwits like Trump causing isanely protectionist policies in our trading partners;
    . a deadly food-borne infection causing us to have to cease food imports;
    . the worst of all: something awful that no-one’s thought of yet but which will turn out to be disastrous.

  43. @ Andrew M
    Of course I want to set the right target – that involves looking at a community and seeing whether a modest injection of support, be it a tax break like Enterprise Zones, a tariff (which we ought to have put on “dumped” steel before Redcar closed), or a subsidy to one activity or cost, will make it viable in the medium-term (no-one can forecast the really long-term with any degree of accuracy). Sixty years ago there were modest specific subsidies for hill farms and for labour-intensive industries in the Highlands which were successful. Now the main industry is tourism, using the empty houses to housetourists.
    Incidentally, have you noticed that the one reliable bright spot in UK textile industry is tweed. based on the worldwide reputation of Harris Tweed?

  44. @S2: and all those are immediate response problems, and agriculture isn’t capable of an immediate response. Even given the current level of agricultural subsidy we are at 60% self sufficiency. So if all supplies get cut off Bang! tomorrow we are in trouble even now with subsidies. In order for there not to be a problem we’d have to go to 80%+ self sufficiency all the time, to cover the scenarios you list. That would require even higher subsidies than now, or the alternative which is import tariffs and higher prices all round to stimulate home grown production. The former would be very expensive in taxpayers cash, and the latter would mean far higher food prices in the shops. Which do you prefer?

  45. Incidentally as a farmer I’m loving this idea there’s support for even more farm subsidies and import reduction, it would be like the 1970s all over again. Guaranteed prices for all you can produce, grants for new buildings, drainage schemes and shiny new machinery, the works. Can we bin all the eco-freakery too? Stuff the badgers and the water voles, lets get ripping those hedgerows out!

  46. @Jim (the farmer),

    Tim W mentions turnips (thus swedes too). They are heavy and store well. Are they economic to grow in UK with no subsidies? Are other root crops the same?

    What fruit/vegetables/meat/dairy can we grow in UK without a subsidy and they will be cheaper than imports?

    P

  47. The figures I’ve seen suggest the UK is 80% self-sufficient, but we export 20 and import 40, hence the claim that the UK is 60% self-sufficient in food appears a lot. Subsidies are lower now than they were in the 1930s when self-sufficiency was below 40%. I don’t subscribe to there being a causal link though, although it would be nice for a neo-liberal to claim that.
    I think the advances in mechanisation, food storage ( e.g. nitrogen warehousing ) and growing under polywrap mean the UK produces so much more than it used to. It’s technology that has made us more secure in other words. Of course, you have to have a free market economy and a flexible work force ( e.g. in food processing ) to get these benefits.
    We now have huge production under glass in Thanet with negligible subsidy, and large parts of southern England given over to the essential activity of producing high-value white wine.
    The subsidies, if they must be retained, should be devolved as environmental support to local authorities and regional government to spend as they see best, then future statisticians can all compare and laugh at what was done with them in lefty Scotland compared to right-wing Yorkshire. Just a provocative example.
    Or set them to zero.
    But technology and free markets are the key. not the hand outs.

  48. “What fruit/vegetables/meat/dairy can we grow in UK without a subsidy”

    Not much will be cheaper than the cheapest imports. Dairy is probably the best bet, as the climate suits it, and obviously liquid milk doesn’t travel well, dairy imports are usually butter/cheese/milk powder. The Fens of Lincolnshire could probably compete with world grain prices. Beef couldn’t compete with S American imports. Lamb would do OK, there’s only really NZ imports to compete with and thats on a par with UK costs. Even veg would struggle to compete with stuff flown in from Africa, where weather is better and labour costs minimal.

    To be honest UK farming’s value is most likely less about food production and more about aesthetics – keeping the countryside looking like it does is probably the best value the taxpayer gets from subsidies – tourism is a big earner, if the countryside turned into a mass of scrub (which it will do fast if not farmed) it isn’t going to do much for tourist numbers.

  49. Some big assertions there Jim. That the alternative to farming is no activity at all is a big claim. And tourism is not the big earner you might think. The CPRE have data up which accidentally shows that National Parks support 2.5% of E&W tourism jobs, and cover 9% of the land area. Take out the two best National Parks on tripadvisor ratings of the Lake District and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, then the tourism benefit ratio is even worse. You could do random things with the land, and you’d expect more tourism. It’s London, Edinburgh, York, Chester etc that are the big tourism drivers.
    And one of the objections to adding NP status to the Howgills was that it will be difficult for any new development, tourism or non-tourism.

  50. New Zealand’s agricultural policy following the UK’s entry into the EU enforces Tim’s point. Subsidising farms can really hold back agricultural economic development.

  51. Squander Two,

    I see the case for moving agricultural subsidies to the military. They won’t be any better at running the programs but at least we are being honest about why we are wasting money.

    @ Everyone that expects a short war,

    History is full of examples of the same claim. My expectation for WWIII is that some nukes will be intercepted and some will destroy cities. How long the war lasts will be based on who outproduces who once again.

  52. I love the idea of not paying people who don’t work to live in London, it would make life for us who work there wonderful.

  53. ‘What worries me in all this talk about food security and MI5 claiming we’re only 4 meals away from food riots is that politicians think they need to do something. As Venezuela and Zimbabwe have shown most recently, politicians doing something to ensure cheap food is that fastest way to mass shortages and a crippled economy.’ – BiND

    Zactly. That’s why I have a problem with Timmer’s multiple suggestion of a “system.” There is no system. Creating a system means creating nodes of control, which means people will die.

    Also, I reel at people’s misunderstanding of international trade.

    “When more of your food comes from other countries, it gives those other countries political leverage over your country, since they can bargain with your food supply.”

    No, no, no. People buy food from COMPANIES in other countries, not the governments. The alleged leverage is imaginary.

  54. Gamecock,

    I would disagree with you on the last point but state run agriculture doesn’t typically run surpluses so there is no point. If only socialists were any good at running socialism I could play the contrarian.

  55. Joining this a bit late… But here are some opinions.

    I agree with Tim W on the basic economics. The best insurance is diversified supply.

    But, to borrow a concept from finance, diversification via imports can minimise idiosyncratic risks of local production problems, but it still retains a systemic risk, that of import supply chains. This is probably a less significant risk than that those diversified away via diverse imports, which is why I agree with Tim in the direction of conclusion, but it still exists, so I would not take the conclusion to its absolute limits.

    War is one thing, but as Squander Two points out we should be more imaginative. A pandemic could be a significant one.

    As for the UK feeding itself… Yes it could. It would be an utterly tedious diet, not great for nutrition, and arguably reliant on agrichem inputs (which may themselves be imported), but it could be done.

    Yes, the population has grown significantly. But agricultural yields have grown vastly more.

    Anywhere they haven’t (e.g. Beef), it’s largely because of a rising mix of organic farming, more cautious regulations, or economic motivations that differ (remember that in normal times farmers are not remotely trying to maximise calorific output per hectare – but an import shutdown would drive prices to more greatly incentivise that).

    If you google Mellanby or Fairlie you will see examples of the analysis. We would eat a lot of bread and porridge, a lot less meat.

    It is not a good idea to take this path. But it would be technically possible.

    Don’t get me started on the old trope that ‘we are running out of agricultural land’…

  56. @ Gamecock
    Sorry, but foreign governments do have leverage if we depend on imports from companies within their borders. Governments are embarrassingly bad at creating anything but quite effective in stopping things. NB “quite” – on food supplies that is enough to be worried about.

  57. “That the alternative to farming is no activity at all is a big claim”

    Well find me something else that requires 43 million acres of open space and can be done profitably – farmers are always looking for diversification ideas. Hint – we’ve already got enough golf courses.

  58. Jim,

    Seeing as you appear to have been appointed agricultural consultant, is all the talk about cost of production of animals not rather overlooking the cost of killing them? Haven’t abattoirs consolidated lately, making some animal rearing unprofitable, so regulations are affecting production – something that might change in time of emergency?

  59. @Jim – In East Africa it’s profitable to drive tourists round game reserves in the hope of seeing a lion take down a wildebeest. I’d do the same in the UK, except with wolves and red deer. Or raise horse, elk and beaver for their meat. People like this speciality stuff even if it’s over-priced. Angling clubs, pony clubs, water companies will all have their own ideas when capital costs come down.
    But I don’t need to answer your question myself.
    The free market and local authorities to some extent will find something.
    Remember that the £4bn subsidies to EU farming from UK taxpayers will be going too, and that list of profitable activities you yourself mentioned becomes solidly profitable.

  60. I’m fortunate to live in the Cotswolds AONB (gag) and our dry stone walls and rolling pasture are certainly part of the attraction. Mind you, if getting rid of farming cut down the tourists it would be a close call.

  61. Bloke in North Dorset

    “Haven’t abattoirs consolidated lately, making some animal rearing unprofitable, so regulations are affecting production – something that might change in time of emergency?”

    That happened in the mid ’80s, driven by EU regulations . I remember Christopher Booker campaigning against it.

  62. Jim,

    > and all those are immediate response problems

    Two things. Firstly, no they’re not. Some people (the French security services, for instance) claim that the EU is already collapsing into a range of civil wars. That’s taking years. A dirty bomb in France would reduce, not wipe out, our food imports, and would increase the perceived risk of another one elsewhere but would not guarantee it. A crop blight spreads gradually, in global terms. I’m cynically pessimistic about the rise of protectionism myself, but quite why you would assume that every one of our trading partners would elect a Trumpian protectionist at the same time is beyond me.

    Secondly, even if those things all had immediate and complete effects, they would not require only an immediate response: they have both short-term and long-term effects. Again: I have never suggested that farming is a miraculous cure-all panacea that will protect us from all harm. All I have suggested is that it makes sense to ensure that we have people who know how to get food out of our land, because sometime we might really need to.

    > I’m loving this idea there’s support for even more farm subsidies and import reduction

    Who said that? I reckon farm subsidies are currently too high; I’m looking forward to the UK leaving the CAP. Tim’s argument is that subsidies should be set to zero and, if that means farmers stop farming and the land gets used for something else, no worries. In pure economic terms, he’s right. My argument is that we would be wise to retain our farming knowledge for non-economic reasons, so, if too many farmers stop farming, subsidies should be considered.

    Everyone talking about how self-sufficient the UK could be,

    A simple black-or-white situation where either we have to grow all our food ourselves or we don’t need to at all is highly unlikely. Far more likely is a situation where we find ourselves needing to consume a lot more of our own food than usual. But, worst-case scenario, let’s say all our imports are shut down for some reason and we can only feed 60% of the population. OK, that’s terrible, but it’s a lot better than 0%.

    Liberal Yank,

    > They won’t be any better at running the programs but at least we are being honest about why we are wasting money.

    EXACTLY. I’m a big fan of honesty in politics.

  63. @Andrew Carey: are you kidding me? Breeding horses, elk and beaver for meat? Big demand for elk meat in the UK is there? How precisely are these elk going to be restrained then? You are aware that the law in the UK requires all livestock to be fenced in at the landowners expense? How long do you think your elk farming business is going to last when your herd of them has just stampeded through your fencing and caused a multi-vehicle pile up on the M1?

    As for operating some sort of Serengeti game reserve, words fail me. You’re fucking mad.

  64. “Weren’t ostriches going to be the best thing since sliced brawn?”

    Yep. And alpacas, and llamas, and worms, and any number of other money making schemes that were sold as diversification schemes for farmers. Strangely enough the only people making money were the people supplying breeding stock of alpacas, llamas and ostriches etc………….

    The thing is there’s lots of things that could be done with farmland in the UK that can’t produce food cheaper than foreign imports, the problem is that you aren’t allowed to do them because of the planning system. Farmland may produce food, end of. Anything else requires planning permission.

    Ergo the nation has 3 choices – a) pay to keep farmers farming, largely to keep the place tidy, b) don’t pay any subsidies, import cheap food, keep planning as is. Result pretty much everywhere turns to scrub. Or c) don’t pay any subsidies, import cheap food, liberalise planning laws to allow landowners to do what they like with land in order to make a living out of it. Result – the countryside anywhere near urban areas would rapidly turn into a sort of shantytown mess as land was sold off in small bits to urban dwellers who fancied some extra space to play with, and the more isolated areas would turn to scrub.

    Thats it really. There’s no large scale food production method/type that is a) suitable for UK land and climate and b) profitable vs foreign imports. And if you don’t farm land or do something else with it it turns to scrub. Farming keeps it looking like it does, thats not its natural state.

  65. “I reckon farm subsidies are currently too high; I’m looking forward to the UK leaving the CAP. Tim’s argument is that subsidies should be set to zero and, if that means farmers stop farming and the land gets used for something else, no worries. In pure economic terms, he’s right. My argument is that we would be wise to retain our farming knowledge for non-economic reasons, so, if too many farmers stop farming, subsidies should be considered”

    Firstly, its not knowledge thats the problem, its the practical capital required. Stuff, not money. Farming systems require machinery and specialist buildings to work, if there isn’t a profit to maintain them then they will be gotten rid of. You can’t start a dairy herd from scratch in less than several years at least, grain production needs large amounts of expensive machinery, even livestock production needs breeding stock. As with any manufacturing process there’s a point at which the system can’t drop any lower in production before it stops entirely. There’s also the farming support sector – suppliers of fertilisers, chemicals, machinery etc – they need to make a profit to keep going, if the food production sector shrinks so will the support sector, and that can’t come back quickly either. Incidentally most fertiliser, chemicals and machinery is all imported, if the food can’t be imported, where are these crucial supplies coming from?

    Secondly, all the scenarios you posit are instant problems, that appear suddenly out of the blue. No time to prepare. Ergo farming cannot respond to those, as I have pointed out, production can’t be ramped up at a moments notice. So if the X% of imported food suddenly gets cut off, there’s nothing that can be done about it in the short term. Thats the nature of food production. And given people need to eat this week, not next year, paying farmers a small subsidy ‘to retain knowledge’ isn’t going to help much.

    Thirdly if you think farm subsidies are too high and should be cut the % of home grown food will drop even further, and in the event of a sudden catastrophe there would be even less domestic production left to feed everyone.

    I repeat – the ‘farm subsidy as insurance’ argument only works if you maintain the domestic production at a level that can (and does) supply the needs of the nation constantly. Allow imports to reach too high a level and if they are cut off then there isn’t enough domestic food to go around. So there’s two options – the TW cut subsidies to zero argument, and live with the consequences, or pay enough to keep domestic production at a level that could just about feed everyone in the country next week if the imports get cut off. Anything else is pointless.

  66. As the government gets bigger and bigger it will inevitably introduce food rationing as a health measure.
    This will reduce quite considerably the total food needed apart from the health benefits.
    The WW2 pattern would be a good start.

  67. We are self sufficient in food although (as someone has pointed out) it would be a more basic and more boring diet than now. The following is uk annual production (2015 except * = 2014) for major crops and produce, followed by my calculations for daily amounts (using a population figure of 65m people):

    16m t wheat = 674g wheat / person /day
    7m t barley = 295g barley / person /day
    2.3m t OSR = 97g oilseed rape /person /day
    5.4m t potatoes = 228g potatoes / person /day

    I’ve not included ANY animal production in here because it’s difficult to ascertain how much would be produced using the above crops as feed. However it is safe to assume that a significant amount of milk, beef and lamb could come from land that is in grassland (much of which is not ploughable) and also we can assume that national crop yields could increase if some of the ploughable grassland, set aside etc was brought into crop production.

  68. @Jim (the farmer), October 18, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    What fruit/vegetables/meat/dairy can we grow in UK without a subsidy”

    Not much will be cheaper than the cheapest imports. Dairy is probably the best bet, as the climate suits it, and obviously liquid milk doesn’t travel well, dairy imports are usually butter/cheese/milk powder. The Fens of Lincolnshire could probably compete with world grain prices. Beef couldn’t compete with S American imports. Lamb would do OK, there’s only really NZ imports to compete with and thats on a par with UK costs. Even veg would struggle to compete with stuff flown in from Africa, where weather is better and labour costs minimal.

    Thanks for reply.

    I’m still confused about root crops as most carrots, pots, turnips/swedes, parsnips sold in UK are grown in UK. Is this due to subsidies and/or tariffs making non-UK root crops more expensive?

    To me root crops, being heavy/dense, consumed in vast quantities, easy to grow/harvest/store and amenable to UK climate seem like a crop that should be profitable without subsidies/EU-import-tariffs. Am I missing something?

    P

  69. “root crops, being heavy/dense, consumed in vast quantities, easy to grow/harvest/store and amenable to UK climate seem like a crop that should be profitable without subsidies/EU-import-tariffs”

    No, you’re right, root crops make economic sense and would continue being grown post subsidy removal, imports are limited to early and out of season stuff flown in, new potatoes that sort of thing. But it doesn’t really help the whole feed the nation’ schtick very much, if all we’ve got is milk, some grain and root vegetables, in the event supplies can’t get in from elsewhere.

    The point many people seen to forget is that we don’t eat in the way we did 50 years ago. The vast majority of food consumed today in processed, or pre-cooked. We don’t buy raw materials and cook it ourselves. If you gave the average person the WW2 food ration allowance for the week, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Where’s the ready meals, the pizza and frozen chips?

    Farmers have this illusion they are ‘feeding the nation’, they aren’t, they are supplying the raw material to a food manufacturing process (which includes all the restaurants and cooked food outlets), which then makes products which feeds the nation. If the raw materials to keep this manufacturing process are no longer available then the whole food chain grinds to a halt.

  70. @Jim,

    Many thanks for the information.

    Re: “The vast majority of food consumed today in processed, or pre-cooked. We don’t buy raw materials and cook it ourselves. If you gave the average person the WW2 food ration allowance for the week, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

    Sad, but true. DM recently had a story on how many <35s don't know how to boil an egg, change a plug etc.

    Thankfully I can cook and do buy raw materials. Thus will survive when calamity strikes UK.

    Cheers
    .

  71. @ Jim
    That’s sad. I buy meat from my butcher who sources it all from local farmers (plus his pal who breeds pheasants), and my vegetables and fish from the market. I confess that most of the fruit is imported but that’s largely because I like citrus. When I was young my father grew peas, beans, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb, peas, beans, carrots and brussel sprouts, as well as flowers in the garden.

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