Crisis creates opportunity to drive home the value of our farmers, says industry leader
- Credit: Archant
The coronavirus crisis has exposed the fragility of our food chains and proved the worth of East Anglia’s farmers – presenting a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to harness support for British food.
That was the message from National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president Tom Bradshaw as he spoke to Norfolk farmers at the first “virtual meeting” hosted by Yield (Young, Innovative, Enterprising, Learning and Developing) – a rural business network for younger members of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.
Mr Bradshaw said farmers’ ongoing efforts to maintain critical supplies of food during the Covid-19 pandemic had demonstrated the value of the domestic industry at a time when its future viability needs to be protected within emerging post-Brexit agricultural policies and trade deals.
“Food is something that was taken for granted for decades, but six weeks ago when there were empty shelves was the first time anybody has felt that vulnerability that they couldn’t guarantee where they were going to get their food from,” he said.
“And that is where we have this once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have to be very careful to make sure we are not taking advantage of this situation because we have got to be mindful of others. But when we come out the other side of this – at a time when we have got a new agricultural bill, when we are looking for new trade deals and we have just had the vulnerability of the just-in-time food supply chain exposed in a way that it has not been exposed for generations – I think that gives us an opportunity to really cement the future of food production and farming, and the value of that to society.
READ MORE: Romanian farm workers flown in to train East Anglia’s new ‘Land Army’“I think the food security element will be something the government will never take for granted again. I think if we can utilise this as we look to amend the agriculture bill and as we look to trade deals going forward then there really is an opportunity that did not exist six weeks ago.
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“If I am hopeful for the future, it is around cementing the role of primary food production for society and the short secure supply chains that deliver far more for our national economy than importing food from overseas as we have been.”
Mr Bradshaw said the NFU was working on how to “drive home that message politically”, but also to convince commercial food buyers to commit to a higher percentage of UK sourcing –particularly in the “out-of-home” sector.
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“We have always known that 40-50pc of meals are eaten out-of-home, but they are now being bought through farm shops, which are doing amazingly well at the moment,” he said. “That is another success story.
READ MORE: ‘Our takings increased by 35 times last week’ – how farm shops are coping with lockdown sales surge“But a lot of the food eaten outside the home is originless – nobody can see where it has come from, and very few people worry about the provenance of it. A lot of the berries you might eat in a restaurant are imported, and we’ve heard today there is Polish poultry coming into the wholesale market which is currently swamped with poultry.
“That should not be allowed to happen. If the out-of-home eaters were worried about provenance it would not be happening. So we need the out-of-home sector to support British agriculture.”
Mr Bradshaw said although agriculture was, in general, one of the business sectors least impacted by the Covid-19 lockdown, some farms were “acutely affected” – with dairies, ornamental plant growers and chipping potato producers losing their markets overnight as retailers and restaurants closed.
He said a wider impact was being felt on farm diversification projects – such as the riding school at his north Essex farm, which had been forced to close with all its staff furloughed.
“Covid is a crisis which is affecting the national economy and the whole of society, and it is having impacts on certain sectors of agriculture – but it is not affecting every agricultural business,” he said. “There will probably be 80pc of agricultural businesses that at the moment are reasonably unaffected.
“For many farmers the impact will be on the diversification of their businesses. It is those diversifications that have actually kept those businesses going over the last decade or more, helping to be the backbone of those farming businesses and enabling them to carry the risk of the day-to-day food element. But now it is the diversified element for many of them that is the risk, whether that is holiday cottages, leisure facilities or kennels.
“A lot of diversified businesses shut down overnight. That is a strange position for many of us to find ourselves in because we have invested heavily in those diversified incomes to try and secure the future of our business and diversify the risk.”