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Is the late Sir Richard Body the architect of current Conservative Agricultural policy in the UK?

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

As a teenager going to Spalding Grammar School I would often see our member of Parliament Richard Body walking near his house in Welland Terrace and would say a polite “Good morning” or “afternoon” and would always get a response. I recall him as a small man that walked with a slight limp. He dominated the politics of his Holland with Boston constituency, a Tory stronghold, holding the seat for 31 years. He was a Tory rebel, not quite fitting the mould of other Conservative MP’s. Indeed, in many ways he appeared to be a man of contradiction: he was prop Europe, but anti the European Union; he was a supporter of blood sports, but a keen campaigner for animal welfare; he was a keen supporter of farming, but against intensive farming practises. In my view he was a very clever man who was ahead of his time in his thought and understanding. This can be appreciated when you read his books, especially those about European and international relationships, English culture, and food and farming policy.

Sir Richard (knighted in 1986) had first hand personal experience of farming. He wrote four books of note on the subject, especially in relation to European common agricultural policy. In the first two books, “Agriculture The Triumph and the Shame” and “Farming in the Clouds” he argued vigorously against the costs and consequences of the protection and subsidising of British agriculture. He argued that this enormous input of public money had led to high incomes for big farmers and the manufacturers of supplies and equipment for agribusiness. At the same time, thousands of farmers were being driven away from the land as the industry became more capital intensive. He argued that we were all disadvantaged by these policies – farmers pushed to over-production , consumers paying inflated prices for foods, other countries damaged by our quotas and dumping of surpluses, and the third world , whose own agriculture was stifled.

At this stage, anyone looking at the governments agriculture and food policies in 2021 may feel these arguments sound familiar. Can you imagine George Eustace or Michael Gove saying similar things?

There is more. In two further books, “Red or Green for Farmers (and the Rest of Us)” and “Our Food Our Land” he advocated a change of land management by farmers that is both ecologically and economically sound. Sir Richard highlighted the dangers of a farming system, “Red Farming” founded on chemical methods using nitrates, pesticides, hormones and anti-biotics that has put farmers on a treadmill of seeking ever higher production at ever increasing cost, both financial and ecological. He highlighted the dangers to all of continuing in this direction. He therefore proposed a change to “green” cyclical farming methods.

To change British farming he proposed a bargain for both the farmer and the taxpayer. The farmer receives taxpayer’s money for the change over, and the taxpayer, who is also the consumer, has the freedom to buy food at world market prices. The farmer will lose systems of protection and he will lose the treadmill of striving to increase output against costs.

Does this sound familiar? I imagine any farmer reading this shouting out, “But that is free-trade clap trap.” Like all things the devil is in the detail. Sir Richard was an advocate of free trade, but also a farmer both in Northern Ireland and Dorset, as well as an MP in Britain’s “bread-basket” of the South Lincolnshire Fens – he knew what he was talking about, and was not afraid to be unpopular.

So let’s look at some of the arguments. He argued that farmers are in a privileged position because they had been put above the law of supply and demand. But they have not been the net beneficiaries of this privilege, rather they have been stuck on a treadmill of increased output leading to lower farmgate prices needing to increase output. The net beneficiaries of this have been the large chemical and drug companies, machinery manufacturers, service industries and the whole suited group of land agents, farm advisers, banks, finance companies and investment funds. The losers have been the farmer - with marginal or even negative real value returns as his soil has reduced in quality and the environment eroded.

This system has been historically supported by the NFU – the farmers’ main lobby group, but in doing so has done the farmer a great disservice. Of note is that Sir Richard did not fear food imports. He regarded a floating exchange rate as a key free market “import control” that works naturally and efficiently to reward the country that is competitive and exerts a discipline to deter falling standards. I imagine any farmer reading this would see it as a tremendous leap of faith. Sir Richard saw it as “setting the consumer free” to buy produce from where it can be produced at the lowest cost to both the environment and the bank balance. He described how countries such as New Zealand can produce dairy, cattle and sheep at lower cost to the environment and pocket due to grass growing ten months out of twelve. A UK hill farmer in Yorkshire could only dream of such conditions. Similarly, wheat can be grown in Australia, Argentina, Canada and USA more cheaply with less pesticides and fertilisers and less drying costs. The old EEC levys and especially the quotas made this more expensive. Ironically, the farmer himself has the most to benefit from lower grain prices as much of this is used to feed cattle, pigs and poultry. This is especially true as environmental pressure sees a move away from less environmentally friendly soya protein.

Now the fear is that farming business are driven to be the most efficient at production to compete in a world market against say Australia in beef and wheat production. I have seen James Rebank express this fear and it is both warranted and valid. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that to compete, for example, growing wheat in the UK at high yields means we are forced to use more of the world’s finite resources than other countries.

Sir Richard’s reasoning is that a policy of free trade would corelate to food production in methods and locations where there are the lowest ecological costs. Now, as we see Brazilian rainforest destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations and beef farmers, this is hard to believe. Yet at this very moment in time in July 2021 I see UK farmers waking up to the realisation that wheat, possibly the most common of UK crops, is being produced at a marginal return with a high risk of loss if yields or prices fall only slightly. Is this sustainable? Surely the only side of the balance sheet that the farmer can grasp full control of is the expenses, and even then it may require radical changes in how they farm.

Here lies a warning that Sir Richard was very aware of. If Britain had a unilateral declaration of free trade many would benefit, but in his opinion there would be a net loss by many farmers, principally arable farmers on poorer quality land. In 1987 he suggested the number could be 50,000 farmers affected plus an indirect loss to a further number of people whose businesses depended on supplying those farmers. I guess no farmer reading this will disagree and as Belshazzar would say, “The writing is on the wall.”

To this we see three “protections” proposed that are compatible with free trade, and all three of them can be seen in parts of conservative policy, if not yet fully formed:

A floating exchange rate – this means that a currency finds its value when buyers and sellers decide what it is worth with government only interfering by buying or selling its own currency to prevent a major rise or fall. If we buy wheat from the USA we pay in US dollars that are bought for in pounds on the currency market. If dollars are more in demand they will cost more. If sterling is more in demand they will cost less. A sudden flood of food from the USA would cause the dollar to go up in value increasing its cost. As food takes time to produce a freely floating exchange rate has a moderating influence on prices. This provides a little time for farmers to adapt and can be mitigated by import levies being lowered gradually, as we see with the governments Australia deal (although this is currently ridiculously slow and may increase in speed going forward). Sir Richard proposed a period of three years as we saw in the repealing of the Corn Laws in 1846 through to 1849.

Anti-dumping rules – are a key protection compatible with a policy of free trade as it consists of exporting a surplus at a price below cost of production. This protection, Sir Richard proposed, should be in the form of variable import levies that default to a nil rate., but can be raised immediately to nullify the benefit of any produce being dumped on our shore. This sounds contrary to the principles of free trade. But dumping of produce is an aggressive act of economic sabotage that we are entitled to defend against and it enables a policing of free trade principles.

Thirdly, and the most important protection, is: We do not allow the importation of food produced by methods that we would deem illegal in our own country. In doing so we can set an example of reconciling the demand for food with the need to safeguard our environment and animal health. As a major importer of food we can use our purchasing power to bring countries to the conference table by banning certain imports that benefit from certain production practises. Thus we reward countries with the highest environmental and welfare standards. However, this policy is yet to be seen to develop, but, like a good farm, will possibly require several years investment before we see it. Most farmers will currently see this as a current failure of government. Yet is too much being expected too soon? The old failed system of the Common Agricultural Policy was not an overnight process.

Here we turn to a wake-up call given by Sir Richard, that is, farmers are businessmen that have consistently since 1947 enjoyed a system of support. He identifies a dilemma, it is very easy for animal welfarists and environmentalists to give their opinions to the farmer about how to run his business, but how can he survive unless he does the very things others complain about? The farmer is not a “park keeper” but a producer of raw materials, sheep, milk, grain, vegetables etc, but not only that, he is also a steward of the countryside. Here is the problem, as a businessman the farmer should not be pushed for the former to subsidise the latter, rather they should be enabled and rewarded for those works they would not otherwise do as a businessman. This requires a reshaping of agriculture in such a way as to safeguard the farmer, the taxpayer and the consumer whilst at the same time becoming an example to the world.

Here lies a warning for farmers. It is a significant conservative principle that a farmer has free choice to operate his business, and therefore his land as he sees fit. Now any farmer rubbing his hands and thinking he can push yields past 5 tons an acre on wheat and please himself needs to be clear that there is a carrot and stick approach to managing his expectations. The carrot of stewardship agreements (and whatever joins them) is soon to be matched with a stick – that stick will take the form of taxes, fines or restrictions on nitrate use, water use and carbon efficiency. Smart, businessmen farmers recognise this now and are starting to gather the information to understand base lines and how they might farm in the future. Banks are already looking at farming businesses and considering whether to continue supporting them based on the farmer’s clear understanding of planning for change and a preparedness to adapt is key. Personally I see this can bode well for the small farmer, especially mixed farming where lower inputs and the ability to restore soils with animal waste will be of great value. However, I see too many farmers not educating themselves and looking forward, possibly as they deem themselves too busy with the day job. Whilst I have sympathy for their position they risk sleepwalking into failure. We have seen this in recent years as some farmers have been seen to repeatedly replant rape to be rewarded with a poor or failing crop.

Sir Richard proposed that all grade 3 land should revert to pasture. Details of how agriculture can adapt are only just forming, but three principals were laid clear by Sir Richard:

- we cannot continue as we have farmed;

- we need to place conservation on a pedestal of importance, reconciling it with agriculture;

- we want farmers to be stewards of the countryside, and that will require them to be paid adequate public money.

What Sir Richard proposed was a whole culture change in farming that is not backward looking, but future facing in that it accepts the good practises of the past and accepts the good practises of the future. Whether it be rotation of pasture, genetic engineering, or fixing nitrates with sunflowers. Good husbandry and cyclical farming are key to farming’s future environmental success. Protection of bad practises is not.

So much of the Conservative Agricultural policy appears to hold its roots in the thinking of the late Sir Richard Body. But, the jury is out on its delivery.

Copyright Andrew Elsden

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