Opinion: Why Farming Can't Become Green Overnight

Much of the media is starstruck over the COP 26 conference – no expectation is too high, no level of virtue signalling or shaming is too high!

The calls for what must be done to tackle global warming have become more puzzling. These range from taking fewer selfies, because they end up on cloud servers that use lots of electricity, to a new focus on the need for a plant-based diet with less or no meat. A prime example was Waitrose saying this week it would be selling ‘potato milk’.

The week also saw Boris Johnson dismissing recycling as a waste of time, when he ignored the basic rule about not working with animals and children. He told school children the aim should be not producing plastic in the first place, but the lesson of big events like COP 26 is that perfection is not an option. Change is a process, not an overnight outcome – and without the involvement of countries like China, whatever is agreed from COP 26 will be irrelevant.

It is ironic that yet more green wash from the government was being painted on in the week it celebrated a trade deal with New Zealand. This will free it from tariffs it has faced since the UK joined the then EEC in the 1970s.

The government used the lure of cheaper New Zealand wine to hide the devastating impact this would have on a core sector of UK agriculture. Johnson only ever faces planted questions at green events, but it would be interesting to hear him explain how transporting food, literally, half way around the world can be a green outcome.

He pursues these with the zeal of a religious convert, but seemingly only when they suit his narrative. The prospect of trade deals at the expense of UK agriculture should have the eco-zealots up in arms, but that is not happening. Instead, the farming lobby has been left to fight a lonely campaign against cheaper Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc being trotted out as an example of the success of Brexit.

New Zealand is a tough one for agriculture. Its farming standards are high and fairly green; it produces without subsidies and when it comes to lamb, is very good at what it does in giving supermarkets the consistency they want. It will use a trade deal to extend its out of season supplies to the UK, without the quotas and tariffs imposed by Brussels.

Back in the 1950s, in an era of food shortages and austerity after World War 2, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay stocked the UK shelves of then much smaller shops and High Street butchers. Giant corporations emerged from this trade.

But very different times after the UK joined the EU saw New Zealand and Australia shift their focus towards growth markets in Asia. Their interest in the UK is now marginal, but this will not stop the Kiwis making life difficult for sheep producers in Scotland and elsewhere. In global terms the UK is a high value food market, as is the EU, and everyone wants a share of those high prices.

Brexit is increasingly putting clear blue water between the UK and the EU27. Whether that is good, only time will tell and the interpretation depends largely on people’s core view as to whether Brexit was a good or bad decision for current and future generations.

Regarding gene-editing, the government has effectively signalled that it wants to get its foot on the accelerator, while the EU remains with its precautionary principles. Where that leads will be a big point of difference, with inevitable trade consequences, but it is an example where the UK is embracing the right science.

However, New Zealand trade is very different. The EU is also close to a trade deal with New Zealand – the Kiwis want access to a market of 500m in the EU 27, but they know it can never be on the free trade terms the UK offered, because Brussels could never secure support for a deal that would cause such damage to agriculture.


About the Author: Ken Fletcher is the Editor of The Scottish Farmer


First published in The Scottish Farmer