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Opinion: New prime minister must put rocket up Defra’s backside

Time was when farmers took pride in producing food for the nation. But an increasing number, including some of my neighbours, are asking that if the government isn’t concerned with feeding people, why should they bother?

They cite Defra’s continued encouragement, via subsidies and grants, to plant trees, rewild and so on, while the food crisis deepens. And it isn’t just in the UK.

Before long we probably won’t be able to import many of the commodities we’ve been accustomed to bring in from abroad because they won’t be available, at any price.

In passing, I wonder how many of the trees planted over the past year or two have survived the drought? I suspect very few and all the effort and money will have been wasted.

Meanwhile, the temptation to lie on a beach somewhere hot and allow nature to take over your farm while the government pays you to do so is becoming stronger, for some.

But the reality is that farmers and Defra, together, should be urgently exploring ways to sustainably optimise production in order to supply food to consumers at affordable prices.

But the government, which should be promoting such a policy, is preoccupied with choosing a new leader.

Safer hands with Sunak

Neither candidate fills me with enthusiasm, although my gut feeling is that we would be in safer hands with Rishi Sunak than with Liz Truss.

As a non-party member, I cannot influence the vote so, like the majority of the population, will have to live with what Conservative members decide.

Whoever wins will, of course, need to tackle the economic crisis and the cost of living, which is out of control, on day one.

But the food and farming issue is central to the problem and if I were he, or she, I would send a rocket up the backside of Defra.

Frankly, the department has been asleep at the wheel for months, if not years. It has allowed a whole raft of problems, over which it should have exerted control, to become much worse.

Top of that list has been the labour shortage.

Arguably the initial fault of Brexit, it has decimated large chunks of the UK pig industry because of the lack of butchers in processing plants. Many producers will never come back into production.

Throw in the towel

The same Home Office inspired limitation on foreign labour has wrought havoc across horticulture.

This is a sector that imports more than most, but home secretary Pritti Patel’s intransigence is persuading growers to throw in the towel.

It’s a long-term business; you often have to plant years in advance before you get an economic crop.

“Why plant crops for the future when there is no guarantee there will be labour to pick them?” growers are asking themselves.

In the face of this and the worsening world situation, Defra published its National Food Strategy.

It says it intends to “broadly maintain current levels of food production” in a document that is as half-hearted, unambitious and disappointing as that phrase suggests.

It’s not good enough for farmers and it’s not good enough for the country. Rishi, Liz, whoever becomes PM, you need a fresh start at Defra if you want to avoid food riots on the streets of Britain.

About the Author: David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his son Rob.


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