Farming is what feeds us. More than that, in The Fens, and other rural settings, it provides employment, it is a key part of the local economy; and it holds significant impact on our environment and of course therefore the heritage of the area. Yet still there is a disjoint from most people’s lives from food production, and increasingly so as each generation passes. Whether it is a question of securing food and energy security, the protection of the environment, or the health of our communities. It is essential we bring farms back to the centre of our lives both for now, and critical for future economic growth and greatest social benefit.
We need to think about the long-term – not just a generation but perhaps 30 years. A policy – a whole series of joined up policies – that properly takes account of issues like climate change, energy provision, protecting wildlife and promoting healthy living. We need a strategy to protect the highest standards of animal welfare, we must simplify EU funding, increase productivity, while delivering sustainability and environmental objectives.
We must take account of competition for land and water, declining productivity, and pressures on the environment, all have to be addressed to feed a growing population and satisfy the demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food. Farmers have a role in the wider debates which take place in society such as obesity, and there needs to be proper consultation with the very people who produce our food – farmers have a massive contribution to make which I feel has been largely ignored.
I want to see the conversation move away from providing fast and cheap food – the public must learn to accept this is simply not achievable. Rather to focus on the reduction of exploitation of cheap labour, and invest in the welfare of our animals, and the good of nature. This provides a golden opportunity for farming, and for our region in particular. There needs to be a challenge to the suggestion that there is “cheap” food – it is the total cost of the production which should be counted including environmental cost, and the conditions of workers for example. The apparent culture of bullying by some supermarkets is evidence of one of the true costs when looking at the total cost. A significant local issued is the need to recruit high numbers of migrant labourers, mostly employed on low wages in exchange for low skilled work. The supermarkets again fail to take proper responsibility for the impact of their strategy, and invest insufficiently to ensure that workers are properly trained, paid and safe within environments where they seem to apply only the measure of low cost as a metric. There can be no excusing the tolerance of criminal elements although by design much of it’s application in the provision of modern day slavery will be through stealth. Equally many will simply be turning a blind eye, but the supermarkets should not just be morally but legally accountable for ensuring that their providers meet legal as well as any corporate standards they set. The poor conditions, the abuse of migrants, is only one impact – for towns such as Wisbech the consequences have also been on housing and the provision of public services especially health and education. In The Fens, in all rural settings especially, we should be looking to renew the links with farming not seeking to reduce it to a strategy or a means of delivery, it has and should always hold a heritage and cultural value too.
Supermarkets https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/the-supermarket-economy/ make boasts about promoting local foods yet still much produce is (cheaply) shipped at great environmental cost from overseas, and even routine fresh produce might have travelled hundreds of miles by road. We must find a why to encourage the promotion of “local food on local grocery aisles” and to work with others to introduce a “change in food culture” so consumers knew where their food came from and value it – this should be central to the school lunch programme. What a largely wasted opportunity so far to educate children about food and the environment and promote the agenda of localism.
Incredible that in this part of the world there appears to be such a disjoint between producers and consumers. If we cannot fix this – where so much excellent food is grown and produced – little hope for other parts of the nation. We need to improve our local markets, invest in market towns and make farming again central to the big cultural and heritage events of the area. We need to renew the historic ties between the local farms and the towns and their people – especially the schools.
I regret the abolition of the Agriculture Wages Board, I think this is a detrimental step. We definitely need to consider how we can improve the supply of labour but ensure that people are not subject to poor or even abusive conditions. An improved minimum wage is a useful step but also what more can be done to provide quality training, and make agriculture a desirable career choice. Let’s work with schools and colleges to bring the very best local young people into what can be a forward thinking and innovative sector.
Agriculture is the key to the local economy, we must ensure the reputation of all is improved – and criminality stamped on. Again, much of this is also for supermarkets to take responsibility for the supply chain. Low pay, corrupt agencies and exploited migrant workers have dominated production lines and headlines. There is much to do, but also much we should be proud of. Sadly, the many opportunities to shout loudest are simply missed – the many community events have become predictable and stale affairs, they make little effort to genuinely celebrate what “we” offer. We need to pull together.