Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A rural revolution?

This time of year, traditionally the quietest for arable farming, is one of the most active for farming politics, with the annual Oxford Farming Conference pulling together the major players in the sector, under the aegis of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

To celebrate this highly political event, the Conference is funding a research project which is previewed in The Guardian, telling us "US and European dominance in farming [is] under threat", calling for a "significant increase in UK food production to counter threat of losing influence at global level".

This is something of a new one (on me, at any rate), where more usually the farmers talk about self-sufficiency to rack up the money train. But, while the issue is rehearsed is detail in the newspaper, it seems that this is still work in progress, rather than a completed report.

Such as we do know of the project is articulated by Tom Hind, Director of the OFC and Corporate Affairs Director at the NFU. Extruding verbal material of a type typical of the breed, we have him saying, "the forces of globalisation and the market economy have already had a significant impact on agriculture and food, with countries such as Brazil, Pakistan and New Zealand taking increasingly important positions in regional and global markets".

Hind adds that climate change, demographics and the relevance on global corporations are likely to lead to further shifts. Britain, he says, "may be a relatively minor player on the world market but we're becoming more and more exposed to consolidation of input suppliers and competition in key markets, especially our own".

But what is really puzzling is that in an industry dominated by the Common Agricultural Policy, with the EU the paymaster, there is absolutely no reference to the elephant in the room – until, that is, the evening of the penultimate day when a debate tackles the motion: "This House believes British agriculture could thrive outside the European Union".

Proposing is Stuart Agnew, of UKIP, and opposing is Lib-Dim Andrew George, making the only scheduled discussion on the EU. Gone are the heady days of debate about CAP reform, subsidy increases and the mysteries of community politics.

For once, is seems, the NFU, one of the EU's most steadfast and enthusiastic supporters, is looking beyond the narrow, claustrophobic confines of "Europe", and asking if there is life out there. Are we seeing the beginnings of a rural revolution?