18 June 2020

Who’d be a British Farmer?


Jenna Keighley

If you read Robert Colvile’s piece in the Sunday Times last weekend, “Free trade is the key to Britain’s success. We can’t let our farmers and fishermen hold us back” (Sunday, 14 June 2020), you might be forgiven for thinking that our farmers and fisherman are evil dinosaurs, striving to keep a post-Brexit Britain in the dark ages so that they can line their pockets whilst poor families go hungry across the country. Colvile positions free trade as the answer to food poverty in the UK, opening our market to a flood of affordable food for everyone, likening it to Robert Peel’s unpopular move to abolish the Corn Laws in 1846. However, by trying to shoehorn our present day challenges into a narrative that’s nearly two centuries old, we are completely ignoring the fuller picture. Who’d be a British Farmer? 

Today’s farmers are not just producers of food for a local population. They are futurists, environmentalists and stewards of animal welfare. And they are under ever-increasing pressure to do more:  

  1. Produce more food per hectare of land: the UN estimated back in 2011 that farmers will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 in order to feed the global population – and that was before the 2050 population estimate was revised *upward* to 9.7bn  
  1. Do more for the environment: achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, converting land into carbon sinks, reducing the use of harmful pesticides and improving animal welfare standards across the board 
  1. Do more for supermarket shoppers: we want cheaper, tastier, more nutritional foods from a variety of climates and seasons, to be available all year round, and we want it NOW

In order to have any hope of delivering on even a fraction of these goals, farmers need to work smarter, as well as harder. As last week’s Cereals Live 2020 event showed, the farming industry is investigating every opportunity to ensure food security, whilst maintaining and even improving quality standards. 

Developing natural capital, land stewardship and rewilding efforts are designed to help value the land in new ways, including as a means of trapping carbon and promoting biodiversity and soil quality. Precision agriculture combines decades-long advancements in the ways that farmers read and support their land with cutting-edge technology collecting more detailed data to derive more precise insights than ever before using artificial intelligence and machine learning.  

Drones, robots, and connected, increasingly intelligent machines such as sprayers, seed drills and combine harvesters are giving farmers precise insights into every square foot of their land, helping them identify, then spot-treat problem-areas, predict yields and plan future crop rotations in line with the soil type, condition, and composition in order to maximise production. 

Whether we want to admit it or not, all this requires investment and farmers are operating with one hand tied behind their backs. This will soon become both hands if the country opens up to cheaper, lower quality produce, farmed under questionable conditions, all in the name of driving prices lower. The NFU’s food standards petition passed one million signatures on 17th June and is set to be delivered to the UK Government to ensure that standards form a key part of trade negotiations.  

Marcus Rashford’s triumph over the Government, forcing an embarrassing U-turn to provide some of the poorest English families with food vouchers over the school summer holiday, shows that food poverty is a clear and present danger to both our society and our economy. No child should ever go hungry and no parent should have to choose between feeding their child or themselves. However, forcing farmers to bear this weight is putting the fault at the wrong door. As a wider society, we need to do more to address this situation, increasing employment and income levels so that those below the poverty line are lifted. Nobody should have to feel the need to compromise on the quality of their food, just to be able to eat. As Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union said during her appearance at Cereals 2020, “Covid is a food standards issue”. 

Yes, it’s simplistic; there’s a reason I’m not an economist; but this death by a thousand cuts to the farming industry will create a longer term crisis. Now is the time to invest in our domestic producers, establish ourselves as a benchmark for quality standards and explore new ways in which to make up the volume and nutritional shortfalls in our supply chains. As we get closer to 2050, things are only going to get tougher; now is the time for leadership, not capitulation.