Decades ago, my Cumbrian farming grandmother would prepare for long winters by filling her ample chest freezer with home produced lamb, half a pig, and a few large beef joints. The freezer was like the Tardis in that it seemed much bigger on the inside! It also contained racks of frozen vegetables from the allotment and pies with fruit picked from the hedgerows. The blackberry pies were the best, especially on Easter Sunday! Anything bought fresh from the shops was only what was in season at the time.
In the modern world, we now expect by right to have cheap food delivered fresh from across the world. We care little about the people producing the food and even less about the provenance, the traceability and true cost of production.
We don’t actually perceive food to be cheap, because we know nothing else. We have forgotten the true age of austerity, ration books and queuing for food, in an age when no food could be wasted. Grandmother would have baulked at the idea of throwing out perfectly good consumables. Sell by dates meant nothing to our forefathers.
Today 4 pints of whole milk can be bought in most supermarkets today for about 1.10p. Many dairy farmers will be paid less than half of that. The product is sold for a pittance and farmers are paid a pittance. Bottles of water are sold at higher prices! How can this be? And how would we manage today if more than 30% of our weekly wage had to be spent on basic food items? This is how it was in the 1950’s.
Because food is so cheap today, very few people outside the agriculture industry have any inkling of the systems, processes, regulations and hard work that goes into producing a pint of milk or a prime lamb. As a population, we have lost knowledge and respect for the farming industry. We don’t understand and we don’t appreciate where our food comes from, and how it is produced. The constant supply of globally produced cheap food means that UK farmers are any easy target on climate change issues, pollution, animal welfare and just about the ills of the world. This is a seriously misguided blame game.
In the 1950’s UK farmers were truly the housewives friend. Government policies encouraged production at all costs. The nation was hungry and in post- war crisis. These days the government will not support home food production. In fact they barely recognise it. It’s a curious thing but many members of the public believe farmers get free handouts in the form of production subsidies. The reality is that those days are long gone. Current support payments are based on environment and conservation outputs only. The UK farmer is always at the mercy of a painfully thin market. There are no fall back measures. If the beef price drops even lower, the beef farmer has to take it on the chin. It’s the same in every sector.
So where will the food to feed the British people come from in future? The answer if we continue as we are, is an even greater reliance on imports. Frankly it is the road to disaster. Worse still it is morally and ethically challengeable.
My heartfelt belief is that we need to grow our own food and look after our environment at the same time. These are not separate portfolio’s. This work goes together. Too many people with vested interests seek to promulgate the polarisation of farming, food production and conservation. As a nation we are now less than 60% self sufficient in food and it continues to fall by more than 1% per annum. This troubles me greatly. Sure, we are ok now. Lots of food to bring in from all over the world! But where will we be in 20 years time if this trend continues? only 40% self sufficient? desperate to secure even more food from around the world for a growing population? it is madness. We have a 25 year environment plan, but no food and farming plan. This should be one and the same.
Instead we shove it under the carpet as we focus on “saving the planet”. Of course we need to do this urgently but we also need to focus on sustainable food production to feed the human race. We cannot continue a growing trend of importing out of season, cheap food products. If we do and this is more important than supporting UK food production, then we are simply exporting our problem, sweeping it under the carpet in the name of environment and conservation. Many of us will have seen the BBC programme on global meat production this week. I believe many of the findings in that programme actually back up much of what i have discussed earlier. This is a global issue but cannot be blamed on the UK farming community. We’ve been hung out to dry by those who support and promote cheap imported food and we know fine well who they are!
Take a look at the photo above. This is how fruit and vegetables are grown in parts of Spain, much of it destined for the UK market. It is grown this way using the cheapest labour that can be found, people often working in shocking conditions. There have been tv programmes about this recently. Think of the carbon footprint and the use of plastics yet we choose to ignore it. Sweep it under the carpet- again. Cheap food for the masses, stocking the supermarket shelves! “cheap food is our right. We are entitled to it”!
Cheap food is ours by right! That’s one hell of statement, but it must be true because clearly supermarkets support this policy (just as long as their margins are maintained). Clearly the UK government supports this policy wholeheartedly. Cheap food means we have more disposable income to spend on other consumer goods and this keeps the public happy. It’s a measure of economic success to have a tv in every room and be able to eat out several times a week in fast food restaurants or via the take- away. The grim reality is that food is too cheap and we don’t deserve it by right. The grim reality is that global food systems are ensuring the planet is paying a high price, to keep food prices low. The system is broken and most of us don’t even know it. Or if we do, we lift that carpet yet again. We readily accept these global food systems whilst ignoring our own UK sustainable farming systems. We’re even allowing some sections of society to blame UK farmers for the global food production mess!
I steadfastly believe that we have to change our ways. We desperately need to invest more in home- grown food production. As a result and as a condition of this, we need to achieve better environmental goals in offering the public benefits in clean air, clean water and conservation in the natural environment. To do this our farm businesses need to viable and sustainable. The farm business is the key to all this. The government does not recognise food as a public good. Absolute madness and they are missing a huge trick.
Our mentality has to change. Food needs to be priced fairly to respect the producer and the way in which in which our food is grown. We need to return to seasonal purchasing instead of importing goods from across the world. What is the true cost of this in terms of food miles and carbon footprint? no one is saying and we’re sweeping under the carpet yet again in order to protect a 52 week food supply season. It’s easier to criticise our own farmers rather than admit the true cost of food importation.
We must invest in local markets, in other words locally produced food purchased by local people. We must reduce food waste, Millions of tonnes of the stuff, binned each year. Why does this happen? Again because its cheap and not respected and therefore neither is the producer. In fact almost 2 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually of which 240,000 tonnes is binned by supermarkets alone. Ask yourself why this is allowed to happen?
With education and investment we can do much better. Feed our nation more sensibly than we do now. Make the best of our natural assets to grow more food, not less! and at the same time be proud to improve our natural environment.
it’s time to big up the UK farmer, one of the best assets we have. Once again in the future the farmer will become our best friend. Start the planning now and let’s do this on our terms rather than in desperation some years down the line when we run out food and run out of ideas.
This will mean huge changes to the farming industry, new skills to learn, new technology to embrace as we seek to grow more food using less inputs. Our future farmers will be skilled food producers but they will also be upskilled conservationists. And if they are, then they must be rewarded for it. Farmers already offer a huge range of benefits to their communities and the wider public, but we’ve lost the knowledge and understanding of this, again through cheap food and a lack of education about food and farming.
We can get it back but we have to act now to protect our home- production and in doing so our natural environment. Food, farming and conservation go together side by side and it is so easy. We need a Rural Grand Plan to encompass all of this.
But don’t just take my word for it. In 2017 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a stark warning in a report entitled “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.” The message was this: –
Because of a growing global population (7.3b today rising to 10b by 2050), agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent. This needs to happen alongside the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.
This is perhaps more evidence that farming, food and conservation go together. People are now understanding the significance of climate change. Why the hell aren’t we talking about sustainable food production? All of the good conservation work will be destroyed if we start to go hungry. The bad conservation work needs to be called out for what it is. Time to end the polarisation! Bring it together….. “A Rural Grand Plan”.
Grandmothers roast lamb dinners followed by homemade blackberry pie will never be surpassed. it’s time to re-discover her old fashioned values from a time when food was so much more important than it is now. My grandparents in their own little way were proud farmers, feeding the nation. That pride remains today within the farming industry especially among young people who are desperately keen to farm. We’re in danger of losing this in the next generation unless we start respecting, appreciating and supporting them. We’re in danger of losing far more if we continue to import cheap food from abroad, without any consideration of those production systems. You have been warned!