Back at the beginning of March, when it’s fair to say the world looked a little different, there was a leaked email to the Mail on Sunday which showed that a government advisor believed that UK didn’t need the farming sector. The report said that Treasury official Dr Tim Leunig, economic advisor to the chancellor Rishi Sunak, claimed the food industry was not “critically important” to the country’s economy and that agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”. It’s claimed the email said that we should follow the example of Singapore which is “rich without having its own agricultural sector”.
His comments, made just weeks before the UK went into lockdown from COVID-19, have not aged well. The impact of the virus, and of lockdown, has made us reassess a lot of things and, in particular, has brought the issue of food security into sharp focus.
Living with the virus has made us re-evaluate the workers that we really need for our country and the entire food industry has enjoyed a new-found appreciation. Praise for farmers came from Prince Charles in Country Life saying that “food does not happen by magic” and, speaking about farmers, he said that “we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude”.
Certainly it’s easy to focus on other sectors of the economy and forget the importance of farming. But we must remember that when demand soars in a crisis, and global supply chains are frustrated, having food available locally is of paramount importance.
Producing food within our shores is vital to support the economy, help maintain high levels of animal welfare, control sustainability and assist in improving soil heath. To suggest an end to agriculture as an industry would mean an end to large agricultural employers and local family farms alike.
Locally grown food creates important economic opportunities, provides health benefits and helps to reduce environmental impact. Eating what is produced here in the UK is key to reducing food miles and avoiding unnecessary packaging.
The Government’s view on this is still ambiguous. The Conservative Party manifesto promised to uphold high welfare standards in all trade negotiations. But it rejected tabled amendments to the recent Agriculture Bill to enshrine it in law.
If we were looking to follow the Singapore model then it’s worth noting that Singapore itself doesn’t think its situation is tenable. Parliament there is aiming to raise its domestically produced food from 10% to 30% by 2030, with its 30 by 30 project.
When comparing our situation to theirs, we should also remember that the UK is several hundred times larger than Singapore with over 10 times the population. Britain is an island with a rich agricultural history and it’s something we should be working hard to preserve.