'100 years on, that same debate is being had now' – Brexit food security concern mirrors wartime challenges, says farming leader
PUBLISHED: 07:30 07 November 2018 | UPDATED: 08:06 07 November 2018
While political battles rage over Brexit, Britain’s politicians must make food the same strategic priority as our wartime leaders did when threatened with scarcity and starvation.
That was the message to Norfolk farmers from a senior industry leader who drew parallels between the current debate over food security, and the actions needed to maintain the nation’s self-sufficiency during the major conflicts of the last century.
National Farmers’ Union deputy president Guy Smith was speaking at the annual meeting of the county’s NFU branch, held at the Easton and Otley College campus, outside Norwich.
Mr Smith, who farms in Essex, said a no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic” for UK farmers’ ability to trade and compete with their European neighbours.
And on the eve of the Norfolk NFU centenary celebrations, Mr Smith said the major issues facing East Anglian farmers today could also be traced back 100 years, to a time when food “suddenly became a strategic issue” which would last throughout the two world wars.
“There was an immediate reversal of policy in support of agriculture and a plough-up campaign encouraging farmers to produce more food so we were not so dependent on our food needs from elsewhere, and we had an element of food security through self-sufficiency,” he said.
“Ironically, 100 years on, that same debate is being had now. Again we are at a moment in our history when, as a nation, we have to think hard and intelligently about where we want to be fed from going forward, and to what extent we want to have food securtity by securing an element of our own food production from our own resources.
“It is almost painful that this country has to go through this because politicians forget. They will tell us: You are all alarmists for worrying about this, you are suggesting to the British people that food will go short because of insufficiencies going forward. You can’t possibly try to convince us that there will be German U-boats in the Channel.
“Indeed, unless Brexit negotiations go really badly, there are not going to be German U-boats in the Channel, but there are modern equivalents – climate change, intrernational terrorism, cyber warfare.
“So I think we need to remind politicians they are in danger of becoming those men of the 1930s and 1940s who thought this country could never ever go hungry and its food needs could never be jeopardised.”
Mr Smith also gave his views on Defra’s Agriculture Bill, published last month, which includes phasing out the EU’s direct payment subsidies after Brexit, in favour of a new Environmental Land Management System which will pay public money for “public goods”, such as environmental work.
He said the NFU was “wary of having an agricultural policy dominated by environmental payments”.
“Throughout history and across the world, governments give farmers some support to keep them in the game, to make sure that when times are tough they don’t shy away from the decision to plant a seed,” he said. “That is the purpose of an agricultural policy.
“The Americans called it insurance whereby they subsidise farmers and give them guaranteed prices. In the Land of the Free there is an $857bn farm bill going through Congress as we speak. That is not free market, that is support for American farmers because the American government recognises the strategic importance of food.
“The CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) will carry on giving support to European farmers, without the UK in it, for at least five years.
“So the major powerhouses of the world will continue to give support and we, UK farmers, would have to compete against those agricultures going forward and our politicians need to be mindful of that.
“It may be that shifting support payments to environmental payments will work in our favour. It could support production. But I have a horrible feeling that by the time the usual suspects get their hands on this we will have to downsize production to qualify or be eligible for most of those environmental payments. That is why we are wary of having an agricultural policy dominated by environmental payments.”
The meeting also included some significant appointments within the Norfolk NFU leadership.
Tony Bambridge, whose two-year term as county chairman will end early next year, will be replaced by Hoveton-based farmer and contractor Nick Deane, who runs Bure Farm Services and Bure Valley Potatoes. Vice chairman will be Jamie Lockhart of Honingham Thorpe Farms.
Mr Bambridge will take over the Norfolk council delegate’s role vacated by Shipdham dairy farmer Ken Proctor, who is stepping down after six years in the post.