A brave new world
Fred A’Court talks to Sir Donald Curry about how the Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy has changed the farming sector
For the last eight years, Sir Donald Curry has effectively been the architect of the government’s farming and food policy. At the turn of the Millennium, policy was already under review. Then, foot-and-mouth disease hit the industry in 2001 and the world changed.
He recalls: “Foot and mouth was a catalyst for change. Agricultural and food policy was already being reviewed, then foot-and-mouth came along and had such a devastating effect, it was a spur.” ‘Sir Don’ already had vast experience as a popular, effective and well-respected chairman of the Meat & Livestock Commission, and long service with other food and farming bodies, starting with the National Farmers Union in 1975. He was called in by the government to construct a phoenix-like resurrection of the whole industry and to help it manage what was going to be the biggest change in farming and food policy since the Second World War. No pressure, then!
He was appointed chairman of the initial Policy Commission on the Future of Farming & Food, eventually making 105 recommendations on what needed to be done. The government accepted 100 of these and, in December 2002, it published its Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food. It has been, and remains, the blueprint for the way forward. In autumn 2002, an Implementation Group was set up, chaired by Sir Don, to begin delivery of the strategy. Following two terms of three years each, he delivers his final verdict on the present state of the farming and food sectors in March. Of the 100 recommendations accepted by the government, he reckons more than 90 have been delivered.
The core of Sir Don’s work has been largely to do with getting the farming and food sectors co-operating and communicating effectively. “Getting people to work together, horizontally at farm level and vertically up and down the food chain,” he says. The focus, initially at least, was to make the sector efficient, add value to the products produced, and help it to diversify. To achieve this, a raft of new bodies and initiatives, covering economic, social and environmental criteria, have been implemented, with many of them now embedded into the industry and ongoing government policy. Key to this envisaged brave new world was separating farming subsidies from production – and that quickly happened with the Single Farm Payment Scheme.
A memorable phrase from Sir Don’s initial report, used several times, was “reconnecting producers with their markets and with consumers”. In part, this has involved encouraging producers to recognise more clearly what the market requires and ensuring that all sectors of the food chain are efficient. The result has been the emergence of the English Farming and Food Partnerships, the Food Chain Centre and work by the Red Meat Industry Forum and its counterparts in the cereals and dairy sectors.
In setting the goals of adding value to what the food chain produces and diversifying markets, Sir Don set the ball rolling, with local and regional food branding and the emergence of farm shops and farmers’ markets. “The growth in local and regional food has been phenomenal,” he says. “Local food was an insignificant part of the market in 2001.” He admits that some of the niche products now being developed and sold will struggle to survive in the current economic climate, but the wider concept of local and regional food supply is here to stay.
Education has also been high on Sir Don’s agenda. Schools and other public institutions are seen as a good opportunity for local food suppliers, so a Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative has been launched to encourage public sector buyers, including buyers for schools and hospitals, to keep sustainability issues in mind when purchasing food.
The Year of Food and Farming has been followed by an ongoing initiative called Think Food and Farming, aimed at teaching children and young people about food and farming in a sustainable countryside. Sir Don and his group can also take credit for helping to get cookery lessons back on to the school curriculum.
The food and farming initiatives clearly enthuse Sir Don and will probably be a highlight of his forthcoming final report. “It is an exciting venture,” he says. “Teachers were trained about the issues. One thousand farms were registered for school visits. And 93% of kids changed their eating habits as a consequence. It has been a springboard to getting children out to see where food is produced, to grow food for themselves, and to get them cooking.”
Another education-linked scheme is Fresh Start, which aims to get younger people and new thinking into the farming sector. “Fresh Start reinvigorates farming by giving young people the confidence to take the first or further steps in agriculture,” says Sir Don. “It gives them business, commercial, legal and financial knowledge.”
So far, 22 academies have been set up, with another two due to come on stream this year. The result is anticipated to be hundreds of graduates with business skills and new thinking coming into the farming and food production industries. Sir Don acknowledges the need for more innovation, for further diversification and for continued new thinking in the food and farming sectors. “The challenge of change is a problem,” he says. “We have to think of new ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean tradition and experience are in the bin.”
Sir Don will highlight two main areas where progress still has to be made when he delivers his final report to the government: one will be the future role of the Red Tractor logo as part of ongoing quality assurance initiatives; and the other will be the power wielded by the supermarkets. Both are tricky issues. The Red Tractor scheme should be a base on which to build further consumer confidence on standards, says Sir Don. “Forty per cent of consumers recognise it. To ditch it would be a very bold step; it would mean starting again.” He suggests that the standard should be further developed and expanded into an umbrella logo for the whole farming and food sectors, incorporating many of the standards laid down by other assurance schemes. “We could have the most powerful message going out that we’ve ever had,” he claims.
The Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) launched a consultation last autumn into the appetite of levy payers for investment in quality schemes and a single assurance mark. There were more than 50 responses to the consultation with a broad industry consensus, but not unanimity, for investing levy funds in the Red Tractor scheme, managed by Assured Food Standards (AFS). At last November’s AHDB board meeting, it was decided that a business case should be developed to assist some AHDB sector boards to make a decision on a share of a proposed £500,000 investment in a single integrated assurance scheme. This process is still under way, with a number of board meetings this month likely to discuss the issue further. “My challenge to AFS and the new levy board is to embrace Red Tractor,” says Sir Don.
The other ‘live issue’, according to Sir Don, is the ongoing need for better supply chain relations and, perhaps, a workable retail code of practice or grocery supply chain code. “Some retailers have good supply chain relationships and some not,” he says. “We must strive to have more trusting relationships. The retailers appear to be resistant to an ombudsman. It may not be the right term. We have a window to find a solution. If we do not, there will be continuing questions about abuse of power.”
Some fresh thinking with case studies to point the way to best practice might be the way forward, he suggests. He acknowledges that farmers have their part to play in creating or maintaining open, honest and trusting relations, and that trading relationships cannot be protected forever, because things change. No doubt the issue will form an important part of his forthcoming report.
Having served two terms as chairman of the implementation group, Sir Don is unlikely to agree to a third. “Most programmes are well advanced now and I genuinely do not think they need oversight from me.” So what will he do? He will chair the Waitrose Leckford farm estate and continue to do charitable work. “My wife would like to see a bit more of me. I am not going to be bored,” he says.