It wasn’t a good weekend for British farming. Leaked emails from Dr Tim Leunig, the economic advisor to the Chancellor, argued that, as agriculture accounts for a mere 1 per cent of the British economy, our farming industry is an unnecessary irrelevance.
Instead, Dr Leunig suggested, we should follow the example of Singapore, which is “rich without having its own agricultural sector”.
These comments are not only shocking and deflating for farmers, they are confirmation of what many of us have long suspected – that Westminster mandarins inhabit a very different world from the rest of us. Comparing Britain to Singapore?
The latter is an economy based on finance, technology and knowledge, one of the most stable in the world, with high salaries and a completely different climate from Britain, not suited to food production. Is that seriously the sort of future we’re contemplating for the Peak District, the Lake District and active agriculture in Britain?
I appreciate that sometimes in government it is useful to have people willing to explore unorthodox ideas, but that’s very different from spouting pie-in-the-sky nonsense.
Taking a broader view of rural life shows just what would be lost. Living on a typical small family farm, as I do, there’s never a quiet day. Among the constant stream of callers might be the foot-trimming man, ready to do a vital job with livestock. The corn merchant will most days drop off a delivery. We’re quite likely to have the vet, either doing the mandatory TB check or coming to tend to unwell animals. The man with the straw visits several times in the winter, to make sure we can comfortably bed down the cows.
These are just some of the essential callers on which we rely – and all of their jobs depend on farming. You wonder whether Dr Leunig has any idea of their existence, let alone spent any time at all on a farm.
Drive around your local area and you’ll almost certainly come across pubs offering a Sunday roast supplied by a named butcher and, often, a named farm. Nowadays we expect no less. We like to know we’re supporting the local economy and reducing food miles.
Then you have the hospitality and tourism industries. What does Dr Leunig expect them to advertise and sell? Where do B&B owners, landlords, chefs and serving staff fit into his statistics? Or do they not count at all?
Most importantly of all, what happens in a farmerless Britain if basic food imports are disrupted? Used as we are to supermarket shelves loaded with exotic produce, it might seem strange to talk about food security. But you can’t follow the news without realising that we should not take current supply chains for granted. If you have an existing and trusted system, throwing it away merely makes you a hostage to fortune.
Dr Leunig questioned the “poor me,” attitude of farmers, the special pleading, at the cost of restaurants and supermarkets. And perhaps farmers do need to listen more, not just throw their hands up in horror at what they perceive as the latest in a long line of attacks.
Farmers do need to be more open, listen more and be more proactive in tackling countryside issues. But to question their existence is to attack the very soul of the land. What’s more, it’s hardly the way to win the trust of rural areas.
Norween Wainwright is a farmer and writer for the Daily Telegraph
First published in the Daily Telegraph