Farmers must stand up for their standards in 'cheap food' debate, says industry leader
PUBLISHED: 06:24 26 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:22 26 April 2019
East Anglian farmers must stand up for their industry or risk watching it wither in the clamour for cheap food after Brexit, said a leading agricultural spokesman.
Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), spoke at a farmers' evening in Halesworth, jointly hosted by accountancy firm Lovewell Blake and the Suffolk Coastal NFU branch.
He urged all farmers – particularly the younger generation – to get involved in a “once in a lifetime” debate on food policy ahead of Brexit, and to champion the standards and environmental credentials of their work.
“We are at a crossroads whereby this country is going to have to decide from where it is going to be fed,” he said. “There is a big push from a lot of free marketeers, who feel we should just scour the world for our food needs from wherever it is cheapest.
“If that is going to be the prevalent ideology I am convinced, if you look at the history, that you will see a shrinking of agriculture. And it won't just be farming, it will be the supply industry and the merchants we sell to. It will all just become emaciated and smaller.
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“I would lay down one challenge to government, and it is that if as a result of Brexit we become more dependent on imports for our food needs, then that is a failure, because we would see an erosion of standards.
“If there is any place in the world where it is sensible to produce food, I would argue it is Britain, because we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world, and environmentally we are very responsible.
“Take global warming and carbon. We have this ambition to get agriculture to a net-zero [emissions] situation by 2040, but there is a really important caveat here and that is that it is not done simply by stopping farming.
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“The easiest way for a farmer to reduce his or her carbon footprint is simply to stop farming, and just let the scrub grow. But if you re-wild vast tracts of good Suffolk farmland, as some proponents of re-wilding would have, then we would simply have to import the shortfall from what that land was producing and it may well come from countries like Brazil where they are slashing down rainforest. So the net effect on the planet is worse.
“Global warming is a global issue and government has to think hard about the consequences of their policies when it comes to looking after agriculture going forward. We are up for the net-zero challenge, but it is not going to be done at the cost of production, whereby we suck in imports that have a higher carbon footprint, because that is clearly a nonsense.
“These are the points we are going to have to make as lobbyists going forward, and it is important that not just the NFU does it, but all farmers start to get more vocal about the strategic importance of their industry, both in terms of its environmental importance and our food needs as a country. “These are not givens, and we could lose these arguments if we are not robust and clever at this moment in time.”