Food and farming is seldom a prominent issue in electioneering, and while it has moved up the political agenda in recent years and receives a little more attention in their manifestos, the parties know it is unlikely to capture the imaginations of undecided voters. But, Ben Cooper writes, while it may not be a major campaigning issue, rising concerns over global food security guarantee it will be a key policy area for the incoming administration to address.

At election time, the economy is unfailingly the predominant political issue, and given the events of the last two years it is no surprise to see the national debt, public spending and taxation dominating the agenda in the build-up to the UK General Election on 6 May.

Vying for attention against other areas of popular concern such as health, education and immigration, food and agriculture unsurprisingly appear some way down the pecking order, both in terms of media and public interest and how much attention they are given by the parties in their manifestos. 

However, political attention around food and farming has increased in recent years. Food security may often be viewed as the challenge of feeding growing populations in the developing world in the context of climate change and a transformed energy environment but in recent years politicians in Britain have come to realise just how crucial an issue it is to the UK and its own food supply.

The recent mini-crisis caused by the interruption in air freight and the dramatic price spike two years ago illustrate just how exposed the UK is to global food supply fluctuations. While estimates vary, the UK imports between 30% and 40% of its food needs. There are concerns that the UK has become too reliant on imported food, and falling consumer appeal for traditional seasonal UK produce represents a danger to domestic agriculture.

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Activity in the past couple of years from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), notably the Food 2030 strategy, underlines a policy shift in food and farming and an acknowledgment of the criticality of the food security issue to the UK.

Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, explains that for many years there had been some complacency over agriculture and the food supply. The 1980s had been more about the problem of ‘food mountains’, now “long gone”, while the massive development of the UK’s food retail infrastructure gives an overriding view to the public of an abundant and utterly reliable supply. But the underlying truth of the situation is very different.

In the past two or three years, says Pretty, the Government has realised the need for strategic action and the danger of complacency. “Unless we carry on investing in agricultural research, unless we invest in plant breeding, unless we invest in ensuring that our own agricultural sector is successful then we could be storing up some big problems,” he says. “Making sure that food is firmly on the political agenda is very important indeed.”

He continues: “There are potential scares around the corner, climate change, combined with an energy crunch, combined with more pressures on the global system. And one or two surprise events could put real pressure on the global food system. All the predictions are that those pressures will increase so you need to carry on investing in agricultural research, in building resilient agricultural systems across the world. That’s a world job. Do we need to do that here? Yes we do.”

However, the degree to which those concerns have been reflected in the manifestos of the major parties has disappointed some stakeholders.

“It’s good that food is mentioned by all of the parties but they’re very, very light on detail,” says Kath Dalmeny, policy director at agricultural pressure group Sustain. “It is on the map but I wouldn’t say much stronger than that.” But Dalmeny is encouraged that the issue is now being given more emphasis. “Food has tended to be overlooked by politicians in the past and the fact that it is a political issue at all is good.” Sustain is running a campaign for the Government to show a greater lead by placing an emphasis on sustainability in its own food procurement.

Chris Lambert, government affairs advisor at the National Farmers Union (NFU), concurs. “I think there has been more appreciation of farming and food and where food is sourced from and I think all of the parties have grasped this, and that is why we have seen a greater reflection of food and farming in the manifestos.”

However, he believes there could have been greater emphasis on food security. “We hoped that global food security and particularly how it will affect Britain would be a big issue and it hasn’t been a major theme in any of the parties’ manifestos.”

One undoubted reason why food and farming does not feature that largely in the campaigns comes down to the public interest in this area. Food policy tends to have the ability to embarrass governments once in office, particularly when unforeseen events arise, such as BSE or the global price spike, but, even now that it has become a more live issue, it seems unlikely to be a compelling issue with which to woo marginal voters. 

Pretty agrees that the public appetite for detail on food and farming policy is limited. He also believes the lack of debate around food during the campaign may come down to a marked degree of consensus, for example on the dual environmental and food security benefits of supporting domestic agriculture. “Maybe the acceptance of the importance of local food is so across the board politically that nobody is making any point about it now,” he says.

All three parties give explicit support to developing domestic agriculture and make the link between stronger domestic production and climate change benefits. All parties also support better labelling on food provenance. The main distinctions tend to be ones of emphasis. For example, the Conservatives express the labelling issue under a strong ‘Buy British’ theme. The Liberal Democrats go into more detail than the other two parties on reform of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) which will most likely fall under the watch of the incoming administration.

One of the most prominent food policies to be put forward under the Labour government has been the creation of a supermarket ombudsman which is now being backed explicitly by all three parties in their manifestos. 

As for who might win, in election parlance this appears too close to call, with a hung parliament a very real possibility. Stakeholders are always reluctant about pinning their colours to any one party, in case they have to work with the other, and the closer the battle is the more cautious they are. 

In any case, the distinctions between the three main parties on food and agriculture are simply not as pronounced as in some other areas. The likelihood is that the direction set by Defra on food security will continue broadly as it is whoever wins. 

What is certain is that as global food security and climate change become ever more pervasive concerns, and with reform of the CAP slated for 2013, food and agriculture will demand far greater attention from the incoming government than has been reflected in the election and, following the pattern set over the past couple of years, this is only likely to increase.