The nation is at high risk of a food crisis if the Government does not act fast and support British farmers, according to the NFU’s new vice president and Agronomist & Arable Farmer columnist, David Exwood.
Speaking at the Royal Bath & West Show on Thursday (2 June) he stressed that the closeness of war and the threat of a global food crisis are being compounded as consumption continues to climb. “We don’t know what a food crisis is going to look like or what shape it might take,” he said. “But we know that food doesn’t come out of thin air and it’s a hard thing to produce – now we have the perfect storm of global production problems and political crisis.
“Food security and strategic supply matters: It’s unlikely we’re going to run out of food on the shelves but what will be available, and the price of it, we still don’t really know.”
Farming in the current climate of volatility and uncertainty is challenging – heightened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Mr Exwood. “The serious war in Europe has changed the landscape. We have to think about those farmers and what people are going through not so very far away.”
Serious discussion around the food production challenges appears to be in its infancy at Number 10, he warned. Extraordinary inflation, historic price rises, and volatility are increasing risk and pressure on farmers, economically and emotionally. “The risk of farming is greater than ever and that has created a great deal of uncertainty – farmers certainly don’t feel very confident.”
The Government’s U-turn on its farming stance has caused frustration. “Three or four years ago Michael Gove said that food was not a public good, it wasn’t the business of the Government, that it was all about the environment,” he said.
“The NFU has lobbied, and while there is now a farming policy, there is still a long way to go. In this country we have targets for the environment and biodiversity, and we have a strategy for energy production – but we have nothing for food; yet. There is nothing to balance out those two huge forces and keep food production central, and that is a problem.”
However, there is a food strategy coming and the NFU is making it clear that farming matters as the industry navigates the transition away from Basic Payments towards new policy and payment schemes.
“Farming is at the heart of the rural economy and the Government must not underestimate the impact taking away BPS will have on farmers and their businesses,” he said. “The loss of that money – and it is a loss – and delinking will be big moments.
Policy not yet ready
“But the new policy is not there yet – Defra says the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will be running, and farmers will be able to apply, by the end of this month – but we know precious little detail, even after all this time.”
So far, the headline SFI figures are leaving farmers underwhelmed. And the success or failure of the scheme relies on farmer engagement. “If it doesn’t deliver fairly on money, doesn’t have flexibility to suit the nature of farming, and overall, isn’t attractive to farmers, then the policy is meaningless – and it won’t deliver on Government targets,” he said. “What we need, and really want to see, is a properly funded scheme – it is the future and the only way forward.”
Mr Exwood had an agreeable outlook on farming delivering for the environment. “The future of farming is all about having a great environment alongside food production; it isn’t one or the other, it’s got to be both,” he said.
“We have to achieve clean water and air, increase biodiversity and our food production – from the same land at the same time. There are extraordinary challenges in that, but that’s what we need to do. And it isn’t all doom and gloom; it’s also a really exciting time for agriculture.
“As a farmer, I’m enjoying farming more than ever. There’s a lot of good happening on farms across the country – farmers are doing a fantastic job.”