OPINION: Falling self-sufficiency shows why ministers must prioritise homegrown food

Falling self-sufficiency figures and the challenges of Covid-19 prove the need for the government to prioritise homegrown food, says NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix

Falling self-sufficiency figures and the challenges of Covid-19 prove the need for the government to prioritise homegrown food, says NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix

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In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, there has never been a more important time to put homegrown food at the top of the political agenda says GARY FORD, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

By this weekend, food cupboards would be running bare if the UK was solely reliant on homegrown produce to feed the nation.

NFU research shows that the UK’s self-sufficiency, the proportion of the food we consume that is produced here, has fallen from 80pc in 1980 to 64pc now. Without imports, supplies would have run out on August 21.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the strain that placed on our food supply chain, this sends a clear statement to government about the need to really prioritise homegrown food production.

It’s a message that resonates with the public, as demonstrated by the one million plus people who signed the NFU’s petition on food and farming standards.

Thanks largely to that public support, the government has established a Trade and Agriculture Commission, charged with ensuring British farmers’ high standards of environmental protection and animal welfare are not undermined by imported food that would be illegal to produce in the UK.

But there is still much to do. While the commission is a major step forward, farmers face a broader challenge to ensure the UK’s trade and agricultural policies deliver a prosperous and sustainable future for them and for UK Agriculture plc.

When MPs and peers return from their summer recess, they will face crucial debates and votes on two important pieces of legislation – the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill.

On trade, the commission’s work will be of little value if Parliament is not given a greater say in the deals we strike, so during the Trade Bill’s passage through the Commons we backed an amendment that would ensure Parliament has that stronger role. We will continue to support the amendment as the Trade Bill moves through the Lords.

And for our farmers to fulfil their full potential, it’s essential that trade and agricultural policies go hand in hand. That’s why we are working with peers and other decision makers to find the best solution in the Agriculture Bill to ensure equivalent UK standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and other legitimate public policy concerns associated with food production in future trade deals.

During meetings with local MPs, we were sometimes told this was unnecessary, as there are already laws in place banning the likes of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef from our supermarket shelves.

READ MORE: Chlorinated chicken debate is a ‘distraction’ from real food import issues, says MP

That may be true, but those laws could be changed at any point. There will be huge pressure on the government, from countries who want to clinch trade deals, to make these changes so agreement can be reached. And these laws only apply to food safety, not to how food is produced, such as, crucially, how farmers look after the environment and care for animals.

The Agriculture Bill also offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support domestic food production as part of a broader food security strategy. As the bill stands, ministers will be required to report on the state of the nation’s food security every five years but the NFU believes this should be an annual obligation, along with a clear commitment to prevent any further declines in self-sufficiency.

Among other measures, we would also like to see the planned phasing out of direct payments delayed until at least 2022, recognising the impact of Covid-19 on farm businesses.

The government wants to move forward quickly with the bill but we think it needs more time for debate and scrutiny.

We would ask MPs to recognise the strong support that exists for food and farming. For example, alongside the petition, in the latest Farmer Favourability Survey three quarters of respondents voiced a positive view of UK farming. It shows how highly people value quality, sustainably-produced British food.

The public are looking to our politicians to get the decisions right in the crucial weeks ahead - decisions that will ensure the UK farming sector delivers for the nation, the economy and the environment.

• Gary Ford is East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

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