Withering support for the Tories in agricultural areas reflects neglect
In hindsight, we shouldn’t have wasted that salad on Liz Truss. The unfortunate vegetable, which was watched on webcam to see if it could withstand the doomed prime minister, could have eaten one of the shoppers who now stare at the bare shelves as supermarkets dish out salads.
Urban society rarely engages in agriculture. But the shortage of tomatoes and cucumbers is a reminder of the daily struggle farmers wage to extract life from the soil. Energy and fertilizer costs have crippled domestic growers and the latest shortages are clear evidence that Brexit has left the UK at the back of the line for Mediterranean vegetables.
“You can’t expect everyone else to feed you,” Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, whose farmers booed the minister at her weekly conference, told me. The greenhouses in which tomatoes can be grown are pies, he says, because the producers are not entitled to intensive energy subsidies. This is partly due to the fact that this year’s domestic production of salad ingredients has fallen to the lowest level since records began in 1985.
From an environmental point of view, it would be good to reach down and eat what is in season: apples, cabbage, leeks. But until Brits are happy to eat sprouts and parsnips every day, not just at Christmas, it’s probably best to increase the amount of food we grow locally, rather than importing it from ever further afield. But when farmers are pulling out of even egg and milk production – UK egg production is at a 9-year low – something is seriously wrong.
The food industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. But a parliamentary committee has warned that it faces “permanent contraction” if the acute labor shortages experienced last year continue. Crops were left to rot without pickers, and farmers had to kill their own pigs due to the lack of abattoir workers – leaving some deeply saddened. One said that Romanian butchers who wanted to help were prevented from coming to the UK by language requirements. “I didn’t think pigs spoke English,” he said wryly.
Six and a half years since the EU referendum, it is still uncertain what farming subsidies and visas will be available. According to a recent survey, the resulting anxiety is one of the reasons why more than a third of farmers are now struggling with mental problems. Successive governments were clueless about replacing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), leaving farmers unable to plan or invest. The EU’s land-based basic support system must be scaled back quickly, while the UK’s drive to pay farmers to protect nature is criticized as being too complex and prescriptive.
Meanwhile, the government has increased pressure by signing free trade agreements that eliminate tariffs on cheaper, lower-quality food imports. Farmers who have been cut out of wine, beef and sheep deals with Australia and New Zealand have been further shocked by the announcement that beef will be included in the upcoming UK-Mexico trade deal. Many are in despair.
It’s no surprise that governments are freaking out about cheap food, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. But it’s self-serving that domestic food production is falling when the Covid supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine have emphasized the importance of food security. Farmers cannot sell more cheaply than it costs to produce.
These questions rarely come up in urban conversations. Agriculture is viewed with the same contempt as religion. Food miles and animal welfare hipsters who question additives on ingredient labels are likely to shrug off the plight of farmers, citing support for Brexit. In fact, the analysis suggests around 53 per cent of farmers were likely to vote to leave, compared to a national average of 52 per cent, while the National Farmers Union campaigned to remain. Farmers’ idea of Brexit may be an urban myth. And anyway, we won’t stop caring about the car industry just because some Sunderland motorists voted to leave.
It is not only Remainers who shrug their shoulders at the fate of our masters; so are the Brexiters. They didn’t like the rewards French agriculture was getting from the bloated CAP, but they never figured out what to do with an industry that was by its very nature heavily subsidized – and heavily regulated. Conservatives have historically been assumed to have some affinity for the land. But it seems that knowledge of the countryside has diminished. Tenant farmers, for example, manage roughly a third of all cultivated land in England, sometimes on very short leases. But the government has still not responded to a review it commissioned a year ago, which argued for greater protection because tenant farmers were “particularly vulnerable to policy changes introduced by the government”.
Given all this, it is no surprise that the Conservatives are losing the rural vote. By-elections in North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton were a warning sign, with both seats going to the Lib Dems. Since then, ministers have done little to reassure them. While NFU delegates were hostile towards Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey, Sir Keir Starmer was (politely) applauded. Claiming that farming is in her DNA, the Labor leader said food security matters and promised that if Labor wins, half of the food bought by the public sector will be local. Such an unequivocal bid for the agricultural vote would once have seemed audacious; this is now downright reasonable. In a temperate climate suitable for agriculture, environmental policy and food security must go hand in hand. But we need a government that really cares about this.