The importance of rural industries post-Brexit


There are two things we cannot live without: water and food. The weather during the early part of 2018 included rain – a lot of it. The quantity of water falling from the sky doesn’t necessarily equate – so we have been told many times – to full reservoirs but surely this year must be the exception that proves the rule?

I suggest food is an entirely different matter. At the current time we are roughly 60% self-sufficient in regard to our food requirements. In March next year we leave the EU and no-one can say exactly how this will impact on food imports. We need land on which to produce food – meanwhile our population continues to grow and with it increasing pressures on land usage. And of course, we cannot divorce the ways in which climate change issues impact on this scenario.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), gave an address at this year’s NFU Farming Conference in which he referred to food production as “the heart of farming”. He said “I fear that, in the past, the concerns of farmers and food producers were given insufficient weight in the design and implementation of UK Government policy…. some of the comment of previous holders of this office did not give this sufficient attention. Defra, and its predecessor department MAFF, were kept unjustifiably low in the Whitehall pecking order”.

It’s true – for many years Defra has been the poor relation, way, way, way down successive governments’ lists of priorities. Maybe Mr Gove is able to introduce the degree of common-sense that will help to turn things around?

Some would say that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) failed to benefit British farmers. Well in March next year we shall be out of the EU and, if things go wrong thereafter, we won’t have a fall guy named “Europe” – we shall only have ourselves to blame. Mr Gove also told the NFU conference”….the voices of farmers and food producers, their hopes and concerns, expectations and ambitions, and indeed obligations and duties, are now more central to Government thinking than at any time in fifty years. It is crucial that we, together, make the most of this historic opportunity as we leave the EU, this unfrozen moment, so that we can shape policy decisively in the interest of future generations”.

Farming – which as someone working in a land-based college I prefer to divide into “agriculture” and “production horticulture” – is facing two pretty massive problems. Both, in different ways, relate to labour. The NFU has made an impressive case for a Seasonal Agriculture Workers’ Scheme. For many years the farming industries have benefited from seasonal workers, the majority of whom have come from Eastern bloc EU members. The fact that we might not be able to benefit from a workforce that has proved its worth time and again is very, very concerning.  It is also essential we consider the hundreds of highly qualified, motivated and vastly skilled people from the EU who fill permanent jobs that make invaluable contributions to our farming industry.

For years and years, largely because the profession is misunderstood, many branches of engineering have been short of graduate entrants. The same applies to the food production side of the horticulture industry. Those shortages don’t just apply to this country, they are a worldwide phenomenon. Food production is already vastly important and market forces indicate we can expect exponential growth. Agriculture is somewhat different in that technology is taking over some of the more mundane tasks thus freeing up the workforce to utilise the specialist training and skills that are increasingly demanded in the industry. Food production is innovative, fast-moving and increasingly more socially and environmentally aware.

We need to produce more food in this country but sheer quantity isn’t enough by a long, long way. Quantity must be matched by quality. At the same time we must recognise and applaud the fact that it is farmers who are the most important custodians of our environment. And something of which we can undoubtedly be very proud: we maintain the highest animal husbandry standards in the world.

Prior to my current role I worked in the City and I know first-hand how easy it is to write off the rural industries. Dismissing them is a big mistake – they are the foundation on which everything else flourishes. We must attach far greater value to food and where – and how – it is produced. The farming industries are important to the economy, our way of life and our very survival.

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor is deputy group principal and deputy CEO, Hadlow College

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