By Laura Savage,
Best for Britain's Campaigns Officer
For many of us, farming is something that happens to other people. We have vague images of cows, and tractors and fields. How exactly this turns into food on our shelves is not something many people give a lot of thought to.
As far as I was concerned, food magically appeared on shop shelves (possibly brought by elves). The complex and interconnected chain of events, systems and planning that it took to get a cucumber from a field to my local supermarket was not something I, or many other city dwellers, had to confront.
Then coronavirus happened.
Although it now seems like several lifetimes ago, I remember the shock of seeing bare supermarket shelves in those early days of lockdown. For many of us, it was a stark reminder that our food does have to come from somewhere.
Unlike some things we ran out of during lockdown, such as toilet paper, food is not something we can quickly decide to make more of. Farmers are reliant on the seasons, the weather (two things which are increasingly unpredictable in the climate emergency) and time.
I spoke with Liz Webster, a campaigner for Save British Farming and a farmer’s wife from north Wiltshire. She said: “Farmers have to plan years ahead but, since the Brexit referendum, we have been in perpetual limbo with everything up in the air.” It’s a profession saddled with stress and ruled by chance: Liz said: “farming is fraught with risks, risks that intensify every year with the climate emergency.”
This year saw the nation’s worst wheat harvests since the 1980s, with yields down around a third. Experts blamed extreme weather patterns caused by global warming. These issues will only get worse. What farmers need is time to plan and batten down the hatches. What they are getting is a little different.
A former NFU economist announced a no-deal Brexit could put one in three farms out of business by 2025. Liz warned: “This is a conservative estimate. Many farmers will be bamboozled by the new ELMs system [Environmental Land Management scheme, designed to replace EU funding of farms] and slump in commodity prices, and will either give up producing food and diversify or sell up and get out of farming”.
To mark the NFU’s Back British Farming Day, more than 100 banners were erected across the UK on Wednesday, from Guernsey to the Isle of Bute, with the message Save British Farming. This call has become even more urgent, as it has become clear the Government means to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement, an international treaty it signed less than a year ago. A no-deal exit from the transition period is looking ever more likely.
And, without free and easy trade with Europe, from which we import around a third of our food, our supply of food will be in serious jeopardy. Liz agreed we had just a “glimpse” of the potential food chaos when Covid-19 struck. If a no deal goes ahead, those scenes of bare supermarket shelves could return, and on a more permanent basis.
For millions of people throughout the UK, getting affordable healthy food is already a struggle. More than one in ten children in the UK have experienced food poverty at some point in their lives, as have around 11 million adults. During the first month of lockdown, requests for emergency food parcels quadrupled. Activists including Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe have been inspirational champions in the fight against food poverty, and brought the issue on to the front pages. But what is less often talked about is the link between food poverty, food standards and farming.
When the Government decided to go back on the UK’s treaty with Europe, it didn’t just endanger trade with Europe, but every other trading relationship we have yet to secure, and which we desperately need. What will our word as a trading partner be worth now?
The UK is already bargaining from a severely diminished position now it has left the largest trading bloc in the world. We are already under extreme pressure to accept the US’s lower food and agricultural standards if we want a free-trade deal. Without the EU’s backing of our high standards, we have little basis on which to defend ourselves. If you add to that the Government’s decision to renege on its commitment to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement, which the US is committed to enforcing, our outlook is bleak.
Some in the so-called “Lidl free marketeer” base of the Conservative Party argue we will always have a choice of which produce to buy – if you don’t like chlorine in your chicken, don’t buy it.
But there are many issues with that argument, the most obvious relating to food poverty. Making the only healthy option expensive, and the only affordable option unhealthy will do untold damage to the most vulnerable in our society. That is why quality, affordability and accessibility must all be prioritised equally when we think about food.
There’s another sticky little reason why this argument fails, one brilliantly highlighted by consumer watchdog Which? – labelling. While you may be in the privileged position of being able to buy organic British farmed chicken, how will you tell what’s in a late-night kebab or your supermarket ready meal? Once substandard and, more importantly, cheap produce is allowed into our food chain, it’s difficult to keep off any plate, no matter how diligent you are on the weekly shop.
British farmers who work hard to give UK agriculture the world-class reputation it enjoys today will be undercut once cheap, sub-par produce becomes the widely available. It may become unviable to uphold high standards in food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections.
In 2016, the Government sold farmers a bright new vision for UK farming. George Eustice promised an end to “spirit crushing regulation”, insisting that “the UK Government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support – or perhaps even more – as they get now”.
In reality, the Agriculture Bill provides no meaningful protection for farmers or food. In May, an amendment was voted down which would uphold the standards that keep us safe. The proposed ELM scheme will do nothing to halt the economic obliteration of one third of British farms. In this way, Liz believes farmers have been betrayed by Johnson. She said: “He’s a true pied piper offering farmers false promises of a better future when in reality he is pushing to ensure Armageddon to British farming.”
The Prime Minister’s “oven-ready” deal (much like a burger full of chlorine-washed, hormone-injected meat) isn’t as appetising as it was once made to seem.
Campaigns Officer, Best for Britain
Follow us on Twitter at @BestforBritain