‘Must do better’ says report on UK agriculture

Chinese farmers are seen to have more natural resources. Picture: STR/AFP/Getty
Chinese farmers are seen to have more natural resources. Picture: STR/AFP/Getty
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UK AGRICULTURE “punches above its weight” in terms of trade, corporate and political power but is well down the league compared with other major trading blocks around the world, according to a unique analysis by SAC’s rural policy division of where the real power lies in global agriculture and trade.

The research was commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference and will set the tone for this year’s conference, which opens its two-day run this morning, and has adopted the theme, Agriculture: Tomorrow’s Power.

A major debate on the report at the conference tomorrow morning will be led by Dr Alan Renwick, head of SAC’s land economy and environment research group.

The report concludes that the UK is a relatively strong player in global markets but comes fifth behind the USA, the European Union (the combined score for the 27 member states), Russia and China in a novel “power index” of regional power in agriculture, based on a score allocated for the individual components of power. And the report warns that the UK’s future role will be limited by a lack of natural resources.

“It is clear that the UK punches above its weight in terms of trade, corporate and political power,” the report states. “However, in a global sense, it is a small country and it is lowly rated in terms of natural resources on the power index and this puts it behind Russia and China in the overall index.”

The report paints a “grim picture” for many of today’s powerful agricultural economies, including the USA and Europe, in terms of control over natural resources in the future.

“European countries, including the UK, appear to be relatively poorly endowed in global terms with the critical natural resources used in agriculture, such as land, water, potassium, phosphate oil and natural gas,” the report points out.

“This situation, particularly the availability of water and energy, is likely to become worse because of the impact of climate change.”

Many of the emerging economies – Brazil, China and Russia – are seen to be better placed in terms of water and energy endowments although may not have enough arable land and critical minerals relative to size of their populations.

This, the report adds, explains the phenomenon of land-grabbing in Africa, in which some major EU countries have also taken part, and brings a warning that EU countries can expect competition for land from countries like China.

The report also considers the emergence of a handful of transnational corporations (TNCs) who control much of the global trade in agricultural commodities. Four companies account for en estimated 75-90 per cent of the global grain trade and 10 companies are responsible for more than 40 per cent of the global retail market.

“The emergence of these corporate players in the food sector has created a major orientation in the focus of power even further away from farmers,” it is suggested.

However, the report dismisses the widely held view that in the age of corporate globalisation, individual countries are powerless to resist corporate activities. A number of countries had, for example, imposed export bans in 2008 to ameliorate the impact of a food crisis.

“In some cases, civil society organisations and farmer groups have had a significant impact in countervailing or balancing corporate influences,” the authors point out. “Corporate power is not limitless and nation states can control agriculture. A major challenge for some countries is to balance corporate power with consumer and farmer power domestically whilst maintaining global power.”

The report reiterates the view that to feed a world population set to rise to nine billion by 2050, and a UK population of 70 million by 2030, farm productivity must improve and a greater emphasis placed on renewable resources.

“The current water-intensive, fertiliser-intensive and energy-intensive agricultural practices of European countries are unlikely to be sustainable in the near future,” the report warns.

UK agriculture and environment secretary Caroline Spelman yesterday withdrew from today’s conference where she was due to present a paper on Farming in an Uncertain World.

Her place will be taken by her deputy, agriculture minister Jim Paice. Spelman, at her own request, will now speak tomorrow in the session on where is the power in global agriculture?