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The Benn brief: floods, food and fragile farming

Friday 13 July 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, whilst delighted that a man of the highest integrity is now in charge of the ailing rural affairs department Defra, but wonders if anyone has told him about the long-term threat to British food supplies: not flooding but bio-fuels

IT IS not often that I warm to a picture of a politician hamming it up at some photo-opportunity. But I raised a smile this week at the image of the new Defra secretary Hilary Benn sharing a birthday cake at the Great Yorkshire Show with the top brass of the "enemy" - the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

At the same time, I worried if Mr Benn, son of "Wedgie" Benn, grandson and great grandson of MPs, had been briefed by his Whitehall civil servants about the real danger to Britain's long-term food supplies. And that, surprisingly enough, is not flooding.

Hilary Benn
Benn with the CLA's William Worsley

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, his father Anthony Wedgwood Benn was a bit of a joke - there was even a posh night club in London called Wedgie's - as a lord who famously gave up his title of Lord Stansgate to become part of the proletariat to pursue his left wing dreams.

This cut little ice with the general public as he was a descendent of the millionaire pottery family, his dad had been an MP, as had both his grand-fathers. But looking back now, I wish we had more like him in parliament because the one characteristic that the Benn family have radiated for generations is that quality rarely mentioned in public life these days: integrity.

I have absolutely no doubt that Hilary Benn is a man of deep compassion and considerable intellect. In his previous job handling Britain's aid budget to third world countries, he supervised the giving away of billions of pounds.

Ironic, then, that on his visit to the Great Yorkshire Show, with thousands of families flooded out in the county and hundreds of acres of crops under water, his miserly new boss offered £15 million in emergency relief for damage that the insurance industry estimates will cost 100 times as much, a ghastly £1.5 billion!

This flooding will mean huge jumps in food prices which were already growing faster than for a decade (largely thanks to Government policy). But, drastic as this seems, I hope someone, somewhere, has the nous to inform Benn of the real not-so-long-term danger to his nation's food supplies.

That is not flooding, or drought, both caused by global warming, but the quest for bio-fuels, made increasingly urgent by terrorism and the acute instability in the Middle East. Already, huge tracts of arable land in both North and South America are being switched to the cultivation of crops that can be converted into bio-diesel and, in some cases, petrol substitutes.

British food production is being threatened again by Government disinterest

For those producers, this is a much simpler and much more profitable form of farming. Maize is easier to grow than wheat. Any corn crop is easier than raising cattle in countries like Argentina and Brazil, which export huge quantities of meat to Britain. The bio-fuels they produce will go either to American markets or, at increasing rates, to power the booming economies of China and India.

This threat was spotted some years ago by a leading Yorkshire breeder of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle and a senior member of the National Farmers' Union. That was well before the war in Iraq turned into a debacle and the Russians began to turn the screw on customers for its oil and natural gas.

"Farming in Britain has not been so badly treated since the 1930s," said my farmer friend. "Then, the whole industry went very close to total collapse. As a result, we were nearly starved into surrender by German U-boats sinking the ships bringing in foreign food supplies.

"British food production is being threatened again by Government disinterest, so we could end up in a similar situation in peace time. Foreign farmers will not be wiling to supply the British market when they can make more profits more easily by producing bio-fuel for sale on their own doorsteps. At the very least it will mean a huge jump in food prices."

I hope someone in the CLA mentioned this to Hilary Benn at their 100th birthday party at Harrogate (see News). They know what they are talking about, something which the pencil pushers at Defra have yet to demonstrate.

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