As I’m set to retire, I feel the need to reflect on the current state of the rural economy and how the full potential of it can be unlocked in future. If my reflections come across as a rant, then so be it. Being honest is not a sin.
Farmers have been on a frontline of their own during the pandemic by putting food on our tables which is often taken for granted. In Britain, households spend around 8% of their income on food, compared to 1950s when such expenditure was closer to 20%.
No matter how much we promote ‘British-made’ products, many consumers will choose the cheaper option, by preference or necessity. If there are cheap, imported food options on the market it will become impossible for domestic farmers to remain competitive. As local production falls, we will become increasingly reliant on foreign imports.
Greater appreciation of our farmers is much needed and consumers must question themselves as to the origin of their food, how it is grown, and at what cost. As it regards imported food, it is imperative that equivalent standards are met in order to prevent undercutting the UK market with products of lower environmental and animal welfare standards.
Politicians must carefully consider ‘golden new trade deals’ and the implications for our farmers at home. Britain cannot be a global leader in achieving net-zero emissions by simply ‘off-shoring’ our emissions.
Alongside high quality, safe and traceable crops and livestock, UK farmers deliver wildlife habitats and water protection through a broad variety of agri-environment programmes. Though, this aspect is often not recognised by consumers blinded by the prices they pay at the check-out.
Research from Defra indicates many farm businesses cannot currently survive without some level of support, especially as farming support will be reduced as a result of Brexit over the coming years. This will inevitably lead to a massive restructuring of the farming sector.
The consequences of this will not necessarily be pleasant for everyone and I urge farmers to build resilience into their business and take advice from their membership organisations at an early stage.
For the CLA, this has been in discussions about the Common Agricultural Policy’s replacement of Environmental Land Management which would see payments to farmers based around standards for sustainable land management and environmental ‘public goods’.
The way future farming support is rolled out, and managed by government, will be a critical factor in the long-term viability of British farming.
Climate change is a big issue for farmers, many of whom are already taking steps to move towards low carbon farming practices from improving sequestration and carbon storage. They are equally keen to encourage the rapid adoption of new technologies and innovation.
The solutions to climate change are complex and require an approach that is holistic across all sectors, so there is no reason to single out farming. A lot of debate focuses on burning fossil fuels, but we hear far less about the manufacturing sector.
In addition, it seems that ‘tree worshipping’ is a thing, especially when we recall the last General Election’s political party manifestos, all of which was akin to a bidding war in planting more trees than the other!
Where is all this land on which to plant all these trees? It is easy to say ‘plant more trees on the least productive land’ but this disregards the fact that these are often the most conducive to rich biodiversity. The limestone banks I played on as a child, covered in cowslips, orchids and wild thyme, were ‘lost’ to trees in the 1970s when we were all encouraged to ‘plant a tree in 73’, and ‘plant some more in 74’.
The ambition of planting more trees must be backed up the right policies and funding, especially for nurseries to improve domestic tree production and maintain high levels of biosecurity. Trees we plant now should be healthy and resilient to the impacts of changing climate and increasing threats from pests and diseases.
At the moment, Ash dieback is devastating the landscape in many parts of Yorkshire and beyond and, if you look carefully, you will see the tell-tale signs of dead trees.
My 22 years at the CLA has just flown by.
I have thoroughly enjoyed working at this tremendous organisation and take great pride in the passionate commitment of its employees who, despite all the current challenges, are continuously working to represent and champion our members’ interests in rural areas, both locally and with Westminster politicians.