Farming feature: Cheap food comes at a cost, warns East Anglian farmers’ leader
PUBLISHED: 10:38 14 December 2018
An East Anglian farmers’ leader is cautioning against creating a post-Brexit divide between those able to afford food reared and grown to a high standard in the UK and those who can’t.
It’s been a turbulent time in politics - and in farming.
The twists and turns of Brexit have provided an interesting initiation for the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) new director for East Anglia, Rachel Carrington. She admits it’s a “crucial time”, with opposing opinions on the kind of post-Brexit world we should be aiming for.
Some see Brexit as an opportunity to open our borders up to cheap food and goods, bringing down the cost of living, but Rachel sees danger in this approach, and cautions against creating a deep divide between those able to afford UK-produced high standard, high welfare food versus those who can’t.
An Anglia Rural Consultants conference, held at the NFU East Anglian headquarters in Newmarket in December, was told the sector faces a ‘holy trinity of chaos’ - Brexit, the Agriculture Bill and the loss of farm subsidies.
For Rachel, one key battleground will be lobbying to protect what farmers still see as their primary role - producing food. The other is avoiding a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which could potentially plunge livestock and other parts of the sector into crisis.
She points out that environment secretary Michael Gove has been very clear that he doesn’t want to see UK farming standards undermined - but she fears that other parts of government view it differently.
“We hear there are certain members of government who say: ‘It’s great - we’ll get cheap food. We can knock our tariff well down’, which means cheap food coming in,” she says.
“It’s very unfortunate. You have got some people in government saying we’ll have UK high welfare food and that’s fine, but all those not in that position we’ll have a whole load of cheap imported food for you. It’s not how we should be treating society. We want to think high welfare food is affordable - and it can be.”
You can only have cheap food by importing from countries with lower costs of production - or you have to continue subsidising farmers so they can produce food at those low prices, she points out. One calculation suggests that for every acre of food we don’t grow here, two acres will be needed somewhere else to make up the shortfall.
However, the government has been clear that it wants to cut direct support to farmers to zero, substituting a new system of ‘public money for public goods’ which puts the environment and other public goods at the top of the agenda. The thorny question is: what does that mean for UK food production?
Rachel was chosen for her latest role two and a half months ago after building up a deep understanding of East Anglia’s farming community over her 24 years working at the NFU’s Newmarket office. “It’s fascinating to have access and to do all the things I have watched and observed and now I can actually get stuck in,” she admits.
During her NFU career she has led the regional policy team, worked across all six counties in East Anglia and built close links with the region’s key stakeholders. She also spent six months as assistant director in the NFU’s office in Brussels. More recently, she was Suffolk county adviser, and ran the office in an ‘interim’ role following the departure of Robert Sheasby, its former director, earlier this year.
The vast majority of farmers are now looking to the future and trying to plan ahead, she says. Some will look seriously at diversification to help provide some stability in an uncertain world.
“It’s not easy at the moment, because the ground around them is so turbulent. Until we see where Brexit leads us and, more importantly, what trade deal we get, it’s difficult to say how many of those farmers will come through it unscathed.”
Until then, uncertainty will continue to stalk the industry. But the resilient farming mentality will prevail despite growing anger and frustration elsewhere at the political impasse, she believes.
“I think farmers are always slightly different in that they are in the main very resilient and very passionate about what they do. I think there is a feeling we have just got to keep going. The agricultural cycle doesn’t stop. However, I think I would say people are more worried than angry because I think agriculture is at the forefront of some negative impacts, particularly over a no deal.”
This year, a number of new NFU members have come on board, a trend she would like to see continue as the industry girds itself for the battle ahead.
“There’s no more important time to be a member of the NFU in terms of a big, strong membership adding weight to our lobbying,” she says.