This article was originally published in September 2018.
Part 1 – Complexity and the burden of history
With the result of the Brexit vote leading to a long, complex and, to date, pretty fruitless period of negotiation to tease British agriculture apart from the safety blanket of the CAP, there has been a flurry of policy positioning papers from the various representative bodies, NGOs and others with a stake in the future of both the countryside and the farming industry. A common feature of these is that they start from the assumption that the status quo is pretty good – it just needs to lean a bit further in their particular direction. And, in making simple assumptions about the status quo, they have missed the opportunity to go back to first principles and generate a serious debate about the industry.
However, to generate that debate requires a challenge to a whole heap of received wisdom, on which policy and other assumptions are based. Not many are prepared or even able to do this. To really pick apart and discuss the possibilities for the future, it is important to look at farming from as many angles as possible. The industry is the most extraordinarily complex aggregation of components, and this very complexity is a challenge in itself. And it is to address, or put to one side, this very complexity, that simple, one dimensional assumptions are made, and, if they have the support of vested interests, they go on to form the basis for policy.
A Farm is the most wonderfully bewildering and complex asset – the source of historical wealth and political power, an essential provider of food (although international trade has removed much of the local immediacy), an appreciating asset (which comes with productivity growth), an environmental and ecological asset, an often subsidised asset, an asset treated as a special case for tax and regulation, a lifestyle asset (both for those enjoying life in the countryside and those seeking to earn a living from the farm), a uniquely heterogenous asset, an asset exposed to global markets and weather events well outside the control of the individual farmer, an asset requiring an extraordinarily wide range of management skills and information, and a financial/capital asset.