A prosperous and flourishing agriculture sector in Devon and the UK more broadly is in the local and national interest. The current events in Ukraine have brought into focus the reality that food production and food security, are of increasing national importance and should be a vital Government priority. Between them, Ukraine and Russia provide over 1/5th (27%) of the world’s wheat exports and this is having a knock-on impact on food production and prices. As such, we simply cannot take for granted international supply chains as they were and a significant reliance on imports.
One of the challenges that is clear to me is that we have the land, but not necessarily the people to farm the land to produce that food. A report on Radio 4 I recently listened to, referred to a pig farm on which a huge number of pigs were going to have to be killed because the farmer did not have the labour force. The issue of the labour force in agriculture needs to be taken much more seriously by the Government. The concept that these incredibly complicated jobs are low-skilled or unskilled is utterly wrong; it is not worthy of the people who do them. We need to recognise the skill, reward it, and attract those workers, from both within the United Kingdom and further afield.
And of course, this skills issue isn’t just an agriculture issue but one that covers a whole range of sectors, many of them prominent in Devon. We simply have to move away from this utterly wrong notion of ‘low skilled’, a phrase which is as untrue as it is pointless. We also need to remember – Brexit was not about stopping immigration – it was about giving the government control to allow those who we needed and who would contribute to come. We need those with farming skills and we need them now. The short-term visa schemes are all well and good but not attractive enough or large enough to provide the workforce we need. We need those with the skills we need to be able to come and live here.
I also have concerns about the Environmental Land Management Scheme. As things stand, the new scheme does not remotely replace the current payments to farmers. According to the agricultural transition plan, by 2024 the current direct payments will have been reduced by half, and by 2027 they are due to end completely. Indeed, the Public Accounts Committee has described the Department’s approach as “blind optimism”. We have yet to see any impact assessments being published of the effects of the design of these new schemes on food production and farming in Devon, or elsewhere. Nor have measurable standards yet been published by which the environmental benefits and farming outcomes can be assessed. Local farmers simply cannot see how these schemes will enable the economic survival of their farms. This really needs to change. Frankly, Defra needs to get its act together.
Under investment in connectivity has put rural businesses, many of them agricultural, at a clear disadvantage. In the 2020 NFU Digital Technology Survey, almost every respondent said access to reliable broadband and a mobile signal was essential for their business, yet less than half felt their mobile signal was sufficient for their business needs. Only 40% of farmers felt their broadband speeds were sufficient. This is something we need to fix, fast, and the Government must also explore how to roll out 5G infrastructure much more quickly.
Devon and Cornwall are already significant food producing areas, but we have the opportunity and our farmers are ambitious to do so much more. Policy must be designed in a way that puts farming at the heart of a sustainable future – so we can produce more of our own food and contribute to sustainability ambitions.
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