Exclusive:Farmers 'frustrated and worried' about government attitude with UK's food security at risk

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Farmers are "frustrated and worried" about the UK's future food security, with many calling for more support from the government.

NationalWorld has spoken to a number of farmers about the state of British agriculture, citing lower subsidies after Brexit and free trade deals allowing cheap imports to undercut local produce, as key concerns. The National Farmers Union has called on the government to legislate so the UK’s self sufficiency does not drop below its current level of 60%.

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Over the last few years, consumers have started to notice empty supermarket shelves for a variety of reasons, from eggs being affected by avian flu to extreme weather affecting pepper imports. And farmers want more government support to preserve the nation's self sufficiency.

While reduced subsidies after Brexit have seen farmers take fields out of production and move them into environmental schemes. Andrew Brown, an arable farmer from Rutland, has moved half of his farm into one of these schemes as it is more profitable than farming the land.

“There’s no way I can make up lost subsidy money from any farming activity, so I’m being forced into these environmental schemes,” Andrew said.

“Our low food security is leaving ourselves open and exposed. It’s all very well saying we can always import it, we’re a rich country. 

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“That’s until there’s a weather problem or a crop problem abroad, and it’s not there to buy, no matter how much money you’ve got. This government has no interest in protecting the agricultural industry at all.”

Our farms produce around 60% of our domestic food supply, although some farmers believe the actual figure is lower. This is down from a high of 78% in 1984, however it has been in the last 60s for the last decade.

While the UK will never be able to produce all of the food it requires at home - you can’t grow bananas or pineapples in Britain for example - the NFU says that the effects of climate change are making our own food security more important.

Speaking earlier this month, President Minette Batters said: “I have never known such volatility in the global food system. Climate change is wreaking havoc on food production across the world, with farmers in Southern Europe literally fighting fires while farmers here are despairing as they now must spend thousands of pounds to dry sodden grain.

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“It is clear that our food supply chains need to be better prepared and more resilient to deal with global shocks and the extremes of weather that are fast becoming the norm. While we will always be a trading nation in food, we cannot remain over-reliant on imports when other countries are also facing significant challenges economically and climatically.

“Our supply chains are too vulnerable. So, the government needs to take an active interest in the UK food chain resilience. It starts and ends with our food security. We need to be able to produce more of our own food at home, regardless of what else is going on in the world.”

The NFU is calling on the government to legislate so the UK’s self sufficiency does not drop below 60%. And NFU Next Generation forum chair Olivia Richardson says cheap imports from the EU, and via free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, are affecting UK farmers.

"If people are demanding cheap food and we are having to compete with cheap imports, then the government is going to have to support us. 

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“Take subsidies away all you like, but at the same time then stop cheap imports. I think there’s a lot of frustration and worry really about how we can compete going forward to make our own food security more sustainable in the future.

“If we want really high standards of welfare and if we’re trying to look after the environment as much as we can, then it’s completely pointless getting cheaper imports that aren’t produced to the same high standards."

Both Keir Starmer and Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Jim McMahon have said that "food security is national security".

McMahon told NationalWorld: “Thirteen years of Tory government negligence has seen British food producers undermined in every way possible which has harmed jobs, rocketed prices, and damaged our food security. 

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“The Tories have failed at every turn, creating a perfect storm of endless red tape, botched trade deals, broken support schemes, labour shortages and crippling production costs which have undercut our own producers and squeezed hard-working families beyond any limits on their weekly food shop.

“Labour is clear, food security is national security. Labour has a plan for supporting our food producers by ensuring that we buy, sell, make, and grow more great British food, entrenching Britain’s reputation as a beacon for quality food, high standards and ethical treatment of animals.”

While Farming Minister Mark Spencer said: “I will always back farmers and I pay tribute to their hard work and dedication all year round to put food on our tables. 

“I will continue to do all I can to support them - from maintaining the £2.4 billion annual budget to the recent Farm to Fork summit where we announced a package of measures to protect farmers’ interests in future trade deals, boost domestic fruit and vegetable production and deliver new investment in technologies.

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 “As the Prime Minister made clear at the summit, we are committed to maintaining food production at current levels. Supporting our farmers and food producers remains at the heart of our plans to grow the economy.”

The government says that the UK has a high degree of food security and a highly resilient supply chain. Defra added that in the Agriculture Act 2020, the government made a commitment to produce an assessment of our food security at least once every three years - with the most recent one being published in December 2021.

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