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The UK Farming Crisis: Looking to the Future

Britain needs food

The war in Ukraine and the resulting food shortages have highlighted the importance of domestic food security. Farmers make up a mere 1% of the British workforce but provide over half of our food. This percentage needs to be increased but it will require help from the Government or we could face a food supply crisis – reducing the amount of food that is thrown away would also help mitigate this. 

In a world of increasing global food insecurity the UK’s decision to leave the EU’s Single Market is putting increasing pressure on Britain’s food security. Despite the risk of food insecurity, the Conservatives have decided to increase imports, thereby increasing the UK’s reliance on other countries. The amount of food and live animals imported rose by £8 billion (19.7%), with much of this increase coming from non-EU countries with lower environmental and animal welfare standards than the UK. 

Not all the policies the current Government has introduced have been bad. There are more work schemes for young people, and now students can do a GCSE in Agriculture (but few schools offer this), which should inspire a few youngsters to enter the industry. The Government has also changed farming policy by phasing out subsidies and are implementing a new Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme and one-off grants which have had mixed results. Also, The Prime Video series Clarkson’s Farm has also been a major success for highlighting some of the challenges farmers face. 

Only time will tell if these new policies will help or hinder our oldest and most important industry, but with a new Labour government on the horizon, it makes sense to look at their policy proposals.

Labours farming policies

Since the UK left the EU, regulations for agriculture and other businesses have become tougher. I don’t necessarily blame this on Brexit but rather the Conservative Government. I like rules and regulations, especially since many are written in blood. But like anything else on a farm, you need to trim and streamline them to be effective. The current post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is one of the most complicated documents ever. Charlie from Clarkson’s Farm is right: to navigate the scheme you need a PhD. The failure of the new subsidy schemes, proposed by the Conservatives, is one of the factors that has led to domestic food prices rising, thus contributing to inflation in the cost of food

The Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed told the Times, it was "a huge source of shame" for him that Labour had previously "alienated a lot of people who live in the countryside". Steve is right, historically Labour has been the party of the urban working class with agricultural workers being largely ignored.  Now Labour is trying hard to appeal to farmers by pledging to cut red tape, improve the post-Brexit payment systems, and call for "arbitrary" visa salary thresholds to be scrapped in farming to help fill workforce gaps. 

Labour has slammed the Tory destruction of the agriculture sector which has resulted in over 6300 agricultural-related businesses in the UK collapsing since 2017, combined with skyrocketing costs of animal feed and fertiliser which have risen by as much as 133% over 2023. In the 9 months from the start of 2022 to the end of September that year, farming input costs rose by 34.15%. In that time, the number of people employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing dropped by 30% (2017= 381,000; 2022 = 268,000), increasing the unemployment rate in rural areas. 

To help combat the decline of British articles, Labour has come up with 5 main commitments in their “new deal for farmers”:

  1. A veterinary agreement with the EU: to cut red tape and costs at our borders and get food exports moving again.

  2. Ensure at least half of all food in hospitals, schools and prisons is British: use the Government’s own purchasing power to back British farming.

  3. GB Energy: a new publicly owned clean-energy company to deliver cheaper bills for businesses, including farmers.

  4. Rewire Britain: allowing farmers to plug their renewable energy into the national grid.

  5. A Flood Resilience Taskforce: reduce the flood risk on farms through a Cobra-style taskforce for delivering drainage systems, flood defences and natural flood management schemes. Less flooding on farmland also means less flooding in neighbouring towns and cities which is a massive improvement on the current “let them flood in sewage water” attitude of the incumbent Government.

These are all good ideas and if Starmer can achieve these goals it would certainly relieve some of the pressure farmers face. 

Right to roam?

The biggest stumbling block Labour may face with securing the agricultural vote is the possibility of introducing the right to roam (proposed by Labour’s former-Shadow Nature Minister Alex Sobel MP) which has been disastrous in Scotland. This hypothetical policy was never an official Labour position under Starmer so calling it a U-turn is disingenuous. A Labour party spokesperson stated: 

“Let me be clear that under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour has never committed to a Scottish-style right to roam. We want people from every background to have responsible access to nature around them, with access to parks and wildlife and the opportunity to enjoy our great British countryside.” 

Everyone in Britain has the right to enjoy our island's natural beauty and farmers play an important role in keeping the countryside looking nice. I support the right to roam in the wild areas of Britain (for example, national parks, coastal footpaths, beaches, certain forests, and other non-agricultural land) so long as you are respectful. I do agree that people should be allowed to wild camp in national parks following the same model as the National Park system in the United States. 

Regarding right-to-roam in Scotland, the current law does not allow access to land being used to grow crops but does allow people to walk on grassland used for grazing, even if there are animals in the field. The rules that prevent the right to roam on cropland should be extended to land used for livestock or, at the very least, people should not be allowed to work in fields with livestock if they have a dog with them. You may think that your dog is well-behaved and won’t chase after cows (and that might be the case), but the cows don’t know that and cows will go after dogs especially if they have calves, putting dog walkers at risk. Between 2018 and 2022 32 people were killed by cows, making cows the most dangerous large animal in Britain

In summary, the future Labour Government needs to work with farmers, not against them. A balance needs to be struck between farmers, and the wider community to help prevent declining mental health, but to also help Britain feed in such a way that allows the countryside to be enjoyed safely for as many people as possible (opening up national parks etc). It's no easy task, but Labour's proposals seem promising and could help lessen the farming crisis. 

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