Opinion: Covid may change government’s approach to farming

Happy New Year everyone! I’m sure most people will share my sense of relief that 2020 is finally over and my optimism – hopefully not misplaced – that in 2021, things can only get better.

The past 12 months were truly an “Annus Horribilis” on so many fronts; the weather, politics, the painfully protracted Brexit negotiations and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that continues to disrupt our daily lives on so many levels.

See also: Read all our coronavirus content in one place

In fairness, of all of these, Covid-19 has had far less of a direct effect on farming than on the rest of society, not least because of the intrinsic social distancing that is part and parcel of so much of what we do every day, but also, in no small part due to the essential nature of our great industry.

However bad things get out there, people still need to eat and, while the fundamental link between farming and an uninterrupted supply of food might be less prominent in the minds of many consumers than perhaps it once was, it hasn’t been lost on government.

The nightmare scenario of empty supermarket shelves and Soviet-style mass-queuing for food in the wake of the first lockdown were mercifully largely avoided, as the food supply chain adjusted rapidly and effectively to the significant change in the demand profile for food.

We went from about 40% of all food being consumed outside of the home pre-Covid, to virtually zero during the height of the spring lockdown.

This, albeit inadvertently, shed some light on just how much imported food is channelled through the food service sector, as Polish beef mince, and chicken from all quarters, quickly found their way onto the shelves of supermarkets which had hitherto prided themselves on their domestic sourcing commitments, much to the chagrin of many UK meat producers. 

However frustrating this largely unavoidable and necessary course of action might have been at the time, what it did do was to highlight the level of reliance our food supply has become on frictionless trade with our near, and not so near, neighbours.

Were the pandemic to have taken hold post-Brexit, the fallout may have been even more damaging to all parties.

This is perhaps why there appeared to be a subtle, if not completely imperceptible, change in the tenor of government focus vis-a-vis the Agriculture Bill around the middle of the year; with a reassuring re-emergence of the need to encourage and support productivity growth, alongside the previously predominant focus on the environment.

On such small details, the future path of an industry, so beholden to the politics of the day, is often determined; so if that is the one positive legacy of Covid for farming, then I guess it’s one for which we should be grateful.

The winter nights are at last starting to draw out  and the green shoots of spring, with their attendant lifting of the spirits will soon be upon us. To paraphrase the late, great Winston Churchill, “This may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, but is perhaps the end of the beginning…” 

 A happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to you all.

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