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16 Aug 14:34

British farmers must face the facts about self-sufficiency in food

by Deborah Orr

Welfare standards mean UK produce is high quality but expensive – and therefore out of reach for a significant proportion of the population

Farmers live in hope – hope that the weather will go their way, that some blight won't ravage their livestock, or that an unpredictable hike or drop in prices won't blow away their often precarious finances. Farmers also die in despair – they are classed, along with agricultural workers and vets, as a high-risk group for suicide. Philippa Spackman of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, speaking last September to the Farmers Guardian, said: "We know of areas where there have been several farmer suicides in the past year. Financial problems are potential causes, but there are also significant additional issues.

"At least two farmers we know of took their lives because the person who used to complete paperwork such as livestock passports or single farm payment applications had died or moved away. There is also the problem of isolation as it affects mental health. Not only do many farmers work very long hours alone, they sadly also have access to means of taking their own lives, from shotguns to chemicals."

The decline in British farming has been with us for so long that it has become, so to speak, part of the landscape. But farmers have managed, nevertheless, to summon up some optimism and self-confidence. The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has launched a campaign calling for support from politicians, the public and the food industry to back them and help them produce more food.

The main thrust of the argument is food security. The NFU points out that since 1991 there has been a 13% decline in production of food that the country consumes, down from 75% to 62%. Apparently, if all the food produced in the UK in a year was stored on 1 January 2013, it would have run out on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single circumstance under which such an exercise would be undertaken. Call me complacent, but I don't expect Britain to be under siege any time soon. Apart from anything else, why would countries from which we import food want to shut down their market? And even if we were under siege, we'd no doubt start producing more pretty smartly, and desist from wasting the vast amounts that we currently do.

Further, considering the incredibly rough ride that British farming has had in recent decades, it actually seems pretty amazing that the figure is still as high as 62%, or nearly two-thirds. By the early 1990s agriculture was already seen as being in the doldrums, even a bit of a lost cause. Recent decades have been marked by crises such as BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, weather patterns that have been all over the place, and continual downward market pressure from supermarkets on dairy farmers particularly, all combined with animal welfare standards, especially in pig farming, that are far higher than our European competitors, which make production costs far higher, too. Yes, 13% is a big decline, but it could have been much bigger. The figure speaks not of failure but of the resilience of farming in the face of great vulnerability. It's a resilience that needs to be tapped.

Despite what the NFU says, self-sufficiency in food just isn't important any longer, or even viable. The rise of food banks attests to the fact that many people in Britain are having trouble putting food on the table, no matter where it's from. No one is going to tell A Girl Called Jack, the young woman who has amassed a large following for her blog about good, cheap cooking, that she must insist that the kidney beans, cumin, onions and carrots she uses are all sourced in Britain. At the same time, the inexorable rise of the fancy restaurant, the farmer's market and the celebrity chef tells us another story: that those who can afford it want top-quality produce. And British farmers have in turn managed – with help from those who champion all of the above – to persuade them that British produce is quality produce. The fact that it's often true – those animal welfare regulations do work – has not, of course, hindered the process.

The NFU mentions, in its argument for self-sufficiency, the recent scandal over horsemeat in supermarket burgers, emphasising that long and impenetrable chains of production are not to be trusted. But that's the whole point of them – these convoluted, hard-to-trace processes. It seems like a contradiction – that food which has passed through many hands is cheaper than food sold at the farm gate. But it's the complexity that offers the opportunity for the avoidance of "red tape", through cheating and fraud.

The Union says that cutting red tape would make things easier for honest farmers. Certainly, the claim that farmers are killing themselves when they lose an administrator suggests that red tape is a huge problem. Yet, in a way, legislation has been good for farming. It has forced farmers to focus on quality, not quantity. And the excellent thing about good-quality food is that you really can taste the difference. Perhaps it is time to look at easing regulation, relying on the consumer to make educated choices based on quality rather than patriotism.

It's not fashionable for politicians to exhort us to "Buy British", and hasn't been for a long time. No wonder. The last time a government urged consumers to make patriotic purchases, in the late 1960s, the campaign was spearheaded by the then MP for Buckingham (and later notorious fraudster) Robert Maxwell. Even then, a campaign single by Bruce Forsyth only sold around 7,000 copies, and the T-shirts were found to have been made in Portugal. But there are better reasons for the reticence than naff fakery. Britain wants to increase its exports. If every Tom, Dick or Harry of a nation successfully exhorted its population to Buy Tom, Dick or Harry, then they'd all kill each other's export markets, and world trade – the interdependency that spreads prosperity – would be the loser. Protectionism is the enemy. That's the theory, anyway.

But there's another, less comfortable reason why Britain will continue to import cheap food, no matter how much support British farmers get. That is, of course, because low wages and unemployment are so widespread in Britain that a significant proportion of the population simply cannot allow a discriminating palate to dictate their consumption. Farmers know this; agriculture has much more than its fair share of low pay and poor conditions. Farm workers rail against supermarkets, yet still buy their groceries from them. Unless there's a revolution in pay scales in this country, there will always be one market that focuses on quality and another that focuses on cost.

Far from exhorting the population to help us become self-sufficient, farmers need instead to increase export markets for their quality goods, creating well-paid jobs at home, rather than food security. Yes, there are (answerable) environmental arguments against the unnecessary export of food. But until the great day arrives when pay and conditions have achieved global equality, there's no other way to stay ahead than to concentrate on selling to the rich around the world, rather than modest earners at home. British farming has a future if it feeds the world's rich, and not this country's poor. Because what you need to produce food for the poor is other people who are even poorer. There's nothing ideal or even fair about this. But, sadly it's the world we have made, and the way things are.


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