For a number of reasons it was disappointing to hear George Eustice suggest, in giving evidence to the EFRA committee, that he wasn’t concerned that British food self-sufficiency is at its lowest point for a generation.
First, there is overwhelming evidence that, due to climate change alongside a burgeoning global population, food supply cannot be taken for granted in the way it has been in the past. Governments are going to have to think more strategically about food supply, rather than just assuming we can always buy it in
Just like energy supplies, an overreliance on foreign countries will make us more vulnerable in the future. As a string of governments that were overthrown in North Africa four years ago will testify, you ignore a less secure food supply at your peril.
Second, a declining level of food self-sufficiency means a widening balance of payments – bad news for any economy.
Finally, for a government that’s keen to promote economic activism and the creation of jobs, it seems strange to show a lack of interest in a declining level of production in the countryside’s leading manufacturing industry – namely, farming.
I sometimes think we need to remind politicians of the loss of acres in production and the reduction in numbers of livestock in this country in the past 30 years. In the mid-1980s we were growing more than 4m hectares of wheat in the UK; at the last count it had fallen to 3.14m.
Yet you can still find the usual suspects talking about “wall-to-wall” wheat in the British countryside. Over the same 30-year period, horticultural crops have dropped 20% by area. This seems very odd when, at the same time, our government stresses the importance of consumers sourcing locally grown fresh produce.
The only category of agricultural land use that seems to have shown any significant increase is uncropped agricultural land, which has shown a fourfold increase since 1984.
This is all the more remarkable when you consider we no longer have set-aside. With livestock, the story is much the same, with a 20% decrease in numbers across the main sectors. Though George Monbiot demonises the number of sheep on our hills, no one seems to have told him the national flock has fallen by a third.
This all leads me to a job I landed in February when I was voted in a vice-president of the NFU. If I have one over-riding ambition in the next two years it is to turn this situation around.
We need decision makers at all levels to be more aware of the consequences of their actions when it comes to food production. Whether it is local councils giving planning permission to reservoirs or farm buildings, through to national government deciding on the major principles of the CAP, the question we should encourage them to ask is do these issues enable farmers to produce more?
We are told the world is increasingly short of food and that we are on the brink of a renaissance in international agriculture. If that is the case, then given our proud record on innovation, British farmers should be at the heart of that renaissance, not pushed out to the sidelines.
Given that British farmers operate to world-beating standards when it comes to food safety, animal welfare and environmental responsibility, the UK is an eminently sensible place to increase agricultural output.
Any obstacles in the way of that simply export farm production to those places in the world where standards – and, thereby, costs – are not as high.
Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip. He is vice-president of the NFU