There has been huge change to our lives over the past fifteen years, much of it unrecognised. Of course, the more obvious has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but others are just as significant.
Starting with politics, the old divisions of left and right have been conflated with the current Conservative Government spending more tax-payers’ money than many Labour administrations. The Labour party once represented the working man with its heartland in the industrial areas of Wales, the Midlands and the North of England, whilst the Tories represented professional classes in the South, the rural areas of the shire counties. That was turned on its head at the last Election when the red wall turned blue and the Conservatives now woo votes in the post-industrial heartland once staunchly Labour. Labour now appeals to middle class intellectuals in Notting Hill and Islington. This raises the question of who stands for rural areas, the country folk that make up more than a quarter of the population? Perhaps the Liberal Democrats after the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
Having left the European Union, the Government is hell bent on portraying Global Britain with radical free trade deals with countries around the world, starting with Australia. The intention appears to be to have tariff and quota free trade with these new partners which may threaten farmers in this country, especially livestock producers. There has been much debate about food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards and the Government has repeatedly pledged to uphold those that apply in this country to imports but has resolutely refused to bring that into legislation.
The Trade and Agriculture Commission has the role of checking any new trade deal but it is not known what would happen if it gave an adverse verdict on a new agreement. Meantime conservation groups have joined farmers in protest, saying that there is no mention of standards thus far in the proposed deal with Australia, that environmental and animal welfare standards in Australia as not as high as ours, growth hormones can be used for example, and the carbon footprint of meat is far higher as cattle are fattened on cereals in vast feedlots.
Henry Dimbleby has yet to publish Part II of his National Food Strategy, it is due next month, but it is likely that he will join some nutritionists who suggest that we must drastically reduce our consumption of red meat and dairy products if we are to tackle obesity. This ties in with the growing move towards vegetarian and vegan diets. Despite the view of most health experts that a balanced diet including red meat and dairy products in moderation is ideal, the claim that such food must be shunned is prominent in advertising and social media.
Climate change is another argument for reducing or even eliminating ruminant animals because of their emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases more polluting than carbon dioxide. So again, it is claimed that we must cut our consumption of red meat and dairy products to save the planet. It is ironic that a significant proportion of methane and nitrous oxide emissions come from paddy fields and yet I have not heard of any suggestions that we must cut down our consumption of rice!
Apart from getting rid of ruminant animals, the other suggestion from the climate change lobby is to plant millions of trees. That fits well as the grassland no longer required for grazing livestock can be turned into forest instead. This assumes that trees sequester far more carbon than grassland which is not entirely supported by the scientific evidence. Certainly, planting trees on peat soils in the uplands would be a disastrous mistake as the growing trees would dry out the peat and give off vast quantities of carbon.
Many conservationists are supporters of rewilding where the land is just left unmanaged. This is a misunderstanding as experience from projects such as the Knepp Castle Estate in East Sussex shows that wilderness needs just as much management as any other land use if it is to be effective. Knepp has turned a loss-making farm business into a hugely successful tourism enterprise but that is clearly not an option everywhere.
It is over fifteen years since the last Labour Government abandoned food security as a priority. At the Oxford Farming Conference in 2007, David Miliband, then Secretary of State at Defra, said at the Oxford Farming Conference:
‘Food security is irrelevant. It is up to the farmer whether we produce food in this country; the Government’s role is to protect the environment’.
That caused a furore and came home to roost in bad world harvests in 2007/8 and 2012 when there were threats to food imports.
But, almost unnoticed, we are back there again, largely due to our secession from the European Union. It was one of the significant claims of the Leave Campaign in the Referendum that food prices would come down after Brexit because we could import cheaper food through new trade deals. The Government may claim to be upholding British standards but there is little evidence of that in what we know of the proposed Australian deal. Farming, especially livestock production, faces huge pressures as described above at a time when direct subsidy payments are phased out. The fear is that the combination of these pressures will lead to a massive loss of livestock farmers and a landscape very different to that of today.