Agriculture at a crossroads

This blog first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times

Last month the Government published the new Agricultural Bill: a document that spells out the start of reforming our industry post Brexit. Currently our guidance is from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of which we have been a part since 1962. This is the rule book that all farmers across the EU have to farm by, depending upon the interpretation of their own government.

This crossroads is a huge moment for our industry. Before the CAP, farmers have always been governed by the demands of government ministers. Following the Second World War the country was broke and rationing of food was in place. We needed to produce more and the Government granted farmers money to improve production: drainage grants, hedgerow removal and mechanisation were all introduced to protect our food security. The arrival of the CAP then began to subsidise food production; supporting farmers financially to keep food production up.  Then, in the late 70’s and 80’s, we produced grain mountains and milk lakes. In response the CAP set aside land and diverted monetary subsidies away from food production. So oversupply was not continued but instead linked subsidies to the area farmed, which is where we are today: land owners receiving a set amount of subsidies per hectare under a strict set of rules that the amount of food is not essential.

Through this period, massive technological advances have been made in our industry but it has had a knock-on effect on the farmed landscape. Every week a story pops up in the professional media, and now a growing number of social media bloggers point fingers at farmers suggesting we are the root of all evil in the landscape. Yes, our industry has changed and this knock-on effect could be partly to blame for biodiversity loss, but on the flip side this has been driven by the policies over-written by government and the EU.

The new bill reads as if the pendulum is to swing the other way, where UK farmers will be rewarded to work with nature to try and reverse biodiversity decline. The Government wants UK farmers to aim for the highest animal welfare in the world to create a ‘Green Brexit Brand of Farming’ that puts us at the pinnacle of modern agriculture worldwide. A spirited call for arms, but this may then have other knock-on effects that could swing our moral conscience. It could open our country’s borders for trade deals; food is easy and attractive in a trade deal, as it is instant. This could allow imports from agricultural systems abroad that are permitted to treat animals with substances that UK farmers are not allowed to use, such as hormone treated beef, GM soya fed animals and crops treated with pesticides banned within the EU and UK. Not a very level playing field and will the general public want to pay for the ‘British Premium’ brand, or is our society so driven by low food costs that it will allow these imports to arrive with no care for their local environments? Are we just moving the environmental damage off our own shore to impact even further afield?  Out of sight, out of mind!

Food security needs to be higher on our Government’s agenda and we all need to think about where our food comes from, what impact it has had on the environment and what has gone into producing it. This is not just a crossroads for our industry but also for everyone else to ask yourselves:  do you care what goes into your food and what price are you willing to pay for the food we eat and, so often sadly, throw away?

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Brian and his cousin Patrick run E.J. Barker & Sons, a family farm partnership and contracting business in Suffolk dating back to 1957. The 667ha arable farm business is farmed on 12 - and nine-year rotations, incorporating winter wheat for feed, spring barley, herbage grass seed, oilseed rape and a break crop of beans, linseed or peas. Environmental consideration is crucial to the running of the business, and remains a key factor in all decision-making on farm.

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