Our farmers are rising to the challenge of coronavirus – and Britain needs them to
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Farmers are ploughing on with the vital job of producing food during the coronavirus pandemic – a crisis which has reinforced just how important our agricultural industry is to the nation says RACHEL CARRINGTON, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
With tractors hard at work in the fields, lambs enjoying the sunshine and the clocks going forward it almost feels like a normal spring. Except, of course, everything is far from normal.
The NFU has supported farmers through many challenges in its 112-year history but nothing quite like the coronavirus crisis, with supermarket shelves stripped of food, most non-essential businesses closed, outdoor shows and events cancelled and millions of us ordered to stay at home because of an invisible virus.
It’s hard to believe it is only two months since a government adviser suggested agriculture wasn’t important. What price that view now?
The past few weeks have highlighted, not that it should have needed highlighting, the strategically important role that food and farming fulfils within this country.
Farmers have been working flat out, with the rest of the food chain, to help maintain food supplies in supermarkets during a prolonged period of unprecedented demand.
There has been a huge increase in sales of eggs, meat, vegetables and other produce, both direct from the farm gate and delivered to people’s homes.
Our horticultural businesses have launched a major recruitment drive to encourage British workers to fill the void left by the seasonal workers who are now barred from travelling to the UK.
And the NFU has been working with Defra so that food destined for our decimated service sector can switch to the retail sector instead.
This crisis has also reinforced farming’s place at the heart of our rural communities, with farm businesses supporting the many local groups set up to help the elderly and vulnerable.
There will be some serious challenges to overcome in the short-term. Labour availability remains a major concern in our region, despite the encouraging response there has been to appeals to help plant and harvest our food.
Meanwhile, farm businesses with small workforces could be badly affected if someone within the business self-isolates or is infected with Covid-19.
We need to ensure our vital farm-to-fork infrastructure remains operational, including the hauliers, abattoirs, meat processing plants, pack houses and mills.
Above all, we need to be mindful of the mental health of everyone involved, looking out for each other at a time when all social gatherings are at a standstill.
In the longer-term, the strategic importance of our industry should never be taken for granted again.
The high food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards farmers adhere to must be protected in future trade negotiations, so that our essential food and farming sector is not undermined.
We need to look at our food supply chains, to build in greater resilience at every link in that chain.
And ultimately, British farmers must be given the tools to deliver a productive, resilient and sustainable agricultural sector that meets the expectations of the UK public – producing safe and affordable food, looking after our environment and valued countryside, and contributing to productive and robust economic growth.
We have come through many challenges and we will come through this, but one thing is for sure – Britain will need its farmers in the months and years ahead.
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