Brexit, the pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine have created a perfect storm for UK agriculture. There is uncertainty about the subsidy scheme to replace the Common Agricultural Policy.
Rising energy costs mean that domestic salad production is at its lowest for 40 years. Labour shortages in abattoirs have left pigs stuck on farms and the lack of seasonal workers resulted last year in acres of crops abandoned in the ground to rot. Unpredictable growing conditions are creating uncertainties about what to grow and when. It’s tough being a farmer at the moment.
As a response to this, South East Cornwall Labour Party held a Question Time on Saturday in Liskeard Public Hall. We were reaching out to farmers and anyone else who was interested in rural affairs to say what they would like a new Labour Government to do.
What did I take away from the evening? Firstly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Talking about the future of farming for young people, the farmers on the panel were clear: the future is good. There are plenty of young people at Duchy College, for example, who are brimming with enthusiasm for the variety of courses they offer. But a decade and a half of Conservative cuts to education leaves colleges with an uncertain future. A Labour government will invest in education.
Secondly, we must support our agricultural sector. The UK imports about half of our food needs. The war in Ukraine has shown how vulnerable long supply chains can be. Importing food also risks in effect out-sourcing environmental protection to other places in the world where standards are not so good. Labour will require public authorities like the NHS to procure at least 50% of their food supplies from the UK market.
Thirdly, are we eating and growing the right kinds of food? That’s about behavioural change. However, at a time of great cost of living pressures, producing food that people can afford will involve compromises. But if we want a sustainable planet we have to think about changes in our food habits. Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy Plan was a wake-up call. Sadly, after a great fanfare, Boris Johnson’s government quietly shelved it. Labour will bring it back on to the agenda.
Many people said to me how great it was that we want to know how farmers want government to shape their future. As one of them said, farmers are not the problem: they are part of the solution. That was my biggest take away.