It is time to back British farming. If you want great British food tomorrow, you need to Buy great British food today. NFU Head of food and farming Phil Bicknell explains why.
Dairy and lamb have grabbed the headlines in recent weeks, but it’s important to remember that many of our farming sectors are feeling the squeeze when it comes to prices.
Take wheat for example. In June last year, farmers could still get £150/tonne for animal feed wheat; for the last 4 months the price has been below £120/t and price prospects remain weak. Considering the cost of production will be upwards of £140/t, that’s bad news for farmers.
The sugar beet price for 2016/7 will be its lowest in nearly a decade at £20.30 per tonne. And our Horticulture and Potatoes board chairman, Guy Poskitt, has outlined the challenges those sectors face here. When you consider that the record price peaks for many products have been reached in the past couple of years it makes the price cuts of the past 12 months all the more dramatic - and all the more painful.
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Defra’s basket of UK agricultural commodity prices* has fallen by 21% over the last two years and it’s now at its lowest level since November 2010. Producing at low prices or below the cost of production is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, market failure in agriculture and the absence of consistently fair and profitable returns to farming is one of the reasons that we have had a Common Agricultural Policy for over 50 years. However, it’s a much changed policy and the CAP of today is a far cry from the CAP of the 1960s -1980s that is often criticised for increasing costs to consumers and leading to damaging over-production.
Most farmers would prefer to farm without financial support from the EU. However, the reality is that currently many farmers do not make fair returns from the market – a point that the current situation again underlines. As a result, the CAP helps to address the failure of agricultural markets to deliver a fair level of income for farmers. It ensures a degree of resilience to market shocks.
Quite simply, if farmers don’t make money this year, CAP is the lifeline that can help to ensure that next year’s crops get planted. For some farmers though even CAP support won’t keep them in business. The dairy sector in particular has seen 236 farmers abandon milking this year alone.
And there are other pressures. European farmers are required to meet the expectations of EU consumers for high quality, healthy and safe food that is produced to exacting environmental and welfare standards. These expectations manifest themselves in higher costs which do not always apply to imports produced in countries outside the EU. The CAP helps farmers meet these higher costs. It also ensures that agricultural production is environmentally sustainable through a combination of underpinning regulatory compliance and providing incentives to further improve environmental performance.
Some argue that we should let the fittest survive, yet if support was removed overnight, many family farms in the UK would not be viable. It would also severely impact on the UK’s ability to feed itself. Our self sufficiency has already declined over the long term, currently at 62%. To be clear, I don’t advocate self-sufficiency and putting up barriers to trade.
However, I do think it’s a useful barometer of our agricultural sector. Producing less and less of our own food needs isn’t where I want the farming industry to be. I know that it’s not where the British public want us to be either. Indeed, we know from research with the public that they support British farmers and want to see more British food in the supermarket. The very successful Back British Farming Campaign has kept that at the forefront of people minds and today will see the latest push on this campaign. In recent days I’ve seen some fantastic comments on social media and received some incredibly supportive letters here at NFU HQ, and I’m sure that farmers will continue to see that all important support British from shoppers.
Our message is simple. It is time to back British farming. If you want great British food tomorrow, you need to Buy great British food today.
*Defra Agricultural Price Index https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agricultural-price-indices The shifting fortunes of different farming sectors can be found in the sector dashboard reports http://www.nfuonline.com/news/popular-now/updated-your-dashboard-guide-to-the-market-trends/