Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Daily Post column May 23rd 2011

Last week, the First Minister noted that farming was an important part of Welsh life despite eliminating the need for a Minister sitting around the Cabinet table with responsibility for the industry.

In defending the fact that, for the first time ever, there would be no Ministerial responsibility for rural Wales, Carwyn Jones stated that he has made sure there is instead a deputy minister for agriculture who will be responsible for representing farming, fisheries and food development.
Certainly, the fact that agriculture is now firmly embedded within the new department of Business, Enterprise and Technology is to be welcomed.

And given that food and drink is an important exporter for Wales, it was surprising that Ieuan Wyn Jones had excluded it from his list of six key sectors for the Welsh economy during his tenure as Economic Development Minister. Yet, many believe that farmers and those working in rural Wales have a right to be worried.

As I pointed out a fortnight ago in this column, Labour no longer hold any seats within rural Wales although they do have representation on the regional list in Mid and West Wales. As a result, those living and working in farming will be looking back at the record of Labour led governments since 1999 with some trepidation, since their tenure in charge of Welsh agriculture has led to a performance of decline unsurpassed in any other part of the UK.

For example, the government’s own statistics show that the contribution of agriculture to the Welsh economy has fallen by 69% during 1999-2008, the worst performance of any UK region. This is at a time when the rest of the Welsh economy grew by 32%. Whilst some may suggest that this follows a general trend of decline within British farming, this simply isn’t true as agriculture across the UK grew by 8% over the same period.

Indeed, the relative decline can be best demonstrated by the fact that in 1999, agriculture accounted for 1.7% of the Welsh economy, a higher level than the 1.1% for the UK economy. By 2008, this had declined to 0.4% as compared to 0.8% for the UK. In fact, the importance of Welsh agriculture has continued to fall relative to the rest of the UK under successive Labour-led administrations. For example, whilst Wales accounted for 6% of the value of the UK’s agricultural sector in 1999, ten years later this had dropped to 1.7%.

In 1999, agriculture was producing £534 million for the Welsh economy, but this had gone down to £168 million by 2008. If the relative contribution of agriculture to the Welsh economy had been the same in 2008 as it had been in 1999, then the sector would have been generating £785 million for the Welsh economy that year alone.

Of course, critics may point to events such as foot and mouth disease as having an impact on the sector, but direct effect from the outbreak in 2001 was far less than expected. Indeed, the main decline in agriculture during the last decade actually happened during the period 2005-2007 when Welsh farming lost most of its value. Therefore, given the steep decline in the Welsh agricultural economy since 1999, the new Assembly Government finally needs to start delivering, especially in boosting the food and drink sector across Wales.

Perhaps having a ministerial voice at the table is not as important as the integration of agriculture as a key industrial sector into the new business and economy department under Edwina Hart. However, actions have to speak louder than words and, given the previous record, rural Wales will expect needs to be a dramatic change in the policies towards agriculture and its link into food manufacturing if it is to become an important part of Welsh economy again.