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The UK Farming Crisis: Farmers Pay for Others Profits

Agriculture is the foundation of large-scale societies. Everything we take for granted would not be possible without farming. It is not a stretch to say that farmers built civilization. Therefore, it should be a concern to all when farmers are in trouble. 

Despite the UK having one of the best climates in the world for agriculture, as a nation, we only produce about 54% of our food, and this figure decreases each year.  Despite the importance of agriculture, it is a difficult industry which is being made harder by Brexit, climate change, and government policy which is contributing to a spiralling mental health crisis across the sector. 

It is a difficult job

Most farms lose money, hence why most farms have diversified. More often than not diversification (holiday lets etc) is used to bail out a farm, rather than providing another source of income.  Many farmers I know, including my parents, have second full-time jobs and working more than 100 hours a week is not uncommon. 

One of the reasons why many farms are struggling is because supermarkets and wholesalers don’t pay enough. Even though the cost of food has risen a lot in recent years, it is the supermarkets that are getting all the extra money, contributing to their record profits. This is because supermarkets have too much power over pricing, and force farmers to take lower prices so that supermarkets. Consider this; farmers are not receiving extra pay, but still have to deal with increases in the price of fuel, fertiliser and animal feed. Despite the importance of food production, the income of a farmer is around 40% lower compared to non-agricultural income.

Legislation should be introduced to ensure British farmers receive a fair price for their products from supermarkets, perhaps something similar to a minimum price guarantee, considered by some EU members, is in order. After all, other businesses have minimum price guarantees. 

In Wales, for example, lowland cattle and sheep farms saw their average incomes (not profit but total amount of money) decrease by 33% in real terms in just one year between April 2022 and March 2023. This decrease will likely continue as changes to government policies could see incomes drop by 60-70% for some farmers.

Farming is also an incredibly dangerous job with agricultural workers experiencing a fatal injury rate 21 times higher than workers across other industries. Farmers work with large animals, heavy machinery, and hazardous chemicals whilst sleep-deprived on tight time schedules. There are also risks with exposure to the effects of bad weather, noise and dust (there is even a disease called farmer’s lung). 

I don’t think that the answer is more health and safety legislation, but more support so that existing rules can be implemented within an internally flexible scheme. Most of the injuries I’ve seen on farms are a direct result of stress and tiredness after working a full day at another job before starting a second full day of work. Again, this directly links to exploitation by wholesalers. If farmers received a proportionate income and fair prices from supermarkets, then some of the stress and need for a second job would decrease. From this, you would expect to see a reduction in injuries and workplace deaths. 

Impact of Brexit

There is a misconception spread around liberal and remain circles that all farmers voted for Brexit; this simply isn’t true. West Country Voices found that 53% voted for Brexit. But given that farmers are predominantly male, rural, and older than 50 (one third are over 65), means that farmers voted leave in a smaller proportion than others in their demographic. 

The leave campaign promised less bureaucracy, increased financial assistance and reduced competition from abroad. This all seemed too good to be true … and it was. Like everything that Brexiteers say, these were lies. Farmers  now face more bureaucracy, adding to an already massive workload, because the UK government decided to increase red tape to make it harder to sell goods to the EU (Europe was happy with the previous arrangement).

Changes to the subsidy schemes by the Conservative government have led to a decrease in financial assistance. Also, labour shortages caused by the lack of seasonal EU workers risks permanent damage to British agriculture and fewer British products on supermarket shelves, reducing food security. 

Finally, the post-Brexit trade deals mean farmers have to start competing with cheap, hormone-ridden, low-quality rubbish from Australia, whilst still having to meet the UK’s high standards. These post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand negatively affect British farmers by undercutting British producers and lowering animal welfare standards.  

Climate change 

Agriculture depends more on the weather and climate than any other sector of the economy.  Anthropogenic climate change is having major impacts on global food production, and the UK is not immune to this existential threat. The UK government recognises, and rightfully so, that climate change and soil degradation is the biggest risk to domestic food production. Due to weather patterns linked to climate change, wheat yields in 2018 were 7% below the 2016 to 2020 average, and 17% down in 2020.

Farmers play a vital role in protecting the environment. Most farmers recognise the impacts of climate change and want to pursue more sustainable farming practices. A survey of farmers in England shows that most farmers recognise the need for the environment and animal welfare to be prioritised in future government policy, and acknowledge the key link between a thriving natural world and successful farming with 80% believing that the health of the natural environment is vital for their businesses.

However, government environmental policy is contradictory. On one hand they’re introducing sustainability schemes, and encouraging more environmentally-conscious practices but have also reduced environmental protections and relegalised environmentally hazardous pesticides. 

It's worth remembering that farmers have already successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, agricultural emissions have reduced by 12%. The dairy sector in the UK has been successful in reducing emissions by 12% between 2000 and 2020 whilst increasing milk production by 11%. 

Tackling the climate crisis is a global issue that requires global solutions. Globally, agriculture produces 11.8 GT of carbon per year. This is a lot, but we need to eat. Reducing CO2 via less intensive livestock production, returning farm waste to the soil, extending crop rotations, tillage to increase soil management have all been proven to work. In many countries, agriculture removes more carbon from the atmosphere than what it releases.  What needs to be changed is global reliance on fossil fuels. Burning coal for electricity production releases 10.9 GT of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. This is 3 times more than all livestock in the world, and coal has no carbon sequestration potential like farming has – even old oil and gas fields can be used for carbon capture and storage.

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