Climate change and global food shortages could bring unexpected benefits for British farmers in the next two decades, ultimately relieving taxpayers of the burden of subsidising them, Caroline Spelman, environment secretary, has claimed.
Ms Spelman said the UK was unlikely to suffer the severe water shortages that scientists predict will afflict other parts of the world, and that British farmers should be able to exploit greater demand for their produce.
“Countries that have water are going to be better placed than those who don’t in a climate change world,” Ms Spelman told the Financial Times. “I think we will see globally a rise in commodity prices as a result of that.”
There would come a time “when agriculture probably won’t require a subsidy”, she added, pointing to recent spikes in grain prices and her belief that commodity prices would continue to rise.
Although Ms Spelman could not predict when that might be, she cited the government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, who has forecast a “perfect storm” by 2030 of three key dangers: energy security, water security and food security.
“We will have to produce more food and we are encouraging the farming industry to think in those terms,” she said. After years of European overproduction of foodstuffs such as grain and butter, she said, food security was now the key issue.
Ms Spelman, who will travel to New York on Wednesday for global talks on biodiversity, said British farmers were already taking steps to use water and other resources more efficiently.
She added that the government was pushing for a “simplification” of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, which would benefit farmers.
But Ms Spelman said farmers would be expected to take on a bigger role in protecting nature, as a condition of receiving their subsidies.
With talks expected to begin next year on the EU budget from 2014-20, Ms Spelman said she hoped that France might have a particular reason to engage constructively on CAP reform.
“I think the French are certainly realistic about change,” she said, claiming that by 2012 France could become a net contributor to the European agriculture budget, as subsidies flowed to new member states in the east.
She warned that the loss of biodiversity, in particular, was incurring economic costs, citing a recent study by the UN that found the natural world contributed trillions of dollars to the world economy, and that the loss of biodiversity was likely to prove a drag on economic growth.
Next week she will hold talks with ministers from around the world to discuss ways of helping poorer countries to halt the loss of plant and animal species. She said businesses should play a greater role in helping poor countries to preserve their landscapes, such as forests.
Ms Spelman has held talks with Andrew Mitchell, international development minister, about using part of Britain’s aid budget to protect plant and animal life, particularly where such schemes directly help the local human population.
Defra would also make further cuts in the number of quangos the department supported, Ms Spelman said. The department has been one of the keenest in disbanding “arm’s length organisations”, and is predicted to make deep cuts in the spending review in October.
Ms Spelman has already cheered the rural lobby – a key constituency for many Conservative MPs – by announcing earlier this week a consultation on proposals to allow farmers to shoot badgers. These are blamed for a rising incidence of bovine tuberculosis, which has caused crippling losses to dairy farmers in the south-west and west.