As the coronavirus lockdown became an imminent reality, it was no surprise that milk and eggs were among the basics that many families rushed to buy, says NFU president Minette Batters.
And yet despite widespread emergency restrictions, social distancing measures and labour shortages, British farmers still continued to provide enough of these essential products for consumers.
As a livestock farmer, then, it was hugely frustrating to see some make unscientific links between animal agriculture and the virus outbreak. But more than this, it was also an enormous disservice to those who have maintained our food supplies during the crisis.
In normal circumstances, these same farmers produce more than 60 per cent of the food eaten in the UK, contributing more than £8 billion to the economy each year.
But in these unprecedented times, our farmers’ contribution is priceless, providing much needed supplies to supermarkets and stores around the country. In short, we cannot afford to scapegoat them.
Farmers are under intense pressure to keep our supermarkets stocked and our fridges full, at a time when around 500 million extra meals per week are being eaten in British households.
Yet at the same time, those supplying our milk, meat, fish and eggs have been left to bear the brunt of unprecedented supply and demand fluctuations.
While supply chain disruptions and stockpiling led to empty shelves in the early days of the pandemic, a fall in demand due to restaurant and café closures is now hitting farmers hard, leaving them with gallons of unwanted milk, a glut of potatoes and nowhere for it to go.
The very safety and availability of these products is down to farmers’ commitment to rigorous animal health and welfare standards, which makes the claim that modern farming practices are to blame for the Covid-19 outbreak both nonsensical and scientifically unsupported.
While there are overlaps between human and animal health, including livestock, almost three quarters of emerging animal-borne diseases originate from wildlife, not farmed animals.
In reality, farmers have been working closely with veterinarians, including throughout the pandemic, to maintain the high standards of animal health and welfare that we enjoy in Europe.
When it comes to disease management and control, then, the focus should instead be on greater efforts to bridge the gap between animal and human health, as well as measures to solve other prolific issues, such as the illegal wildlife trade.
Although the precise source of Covid-19 is still unconfirmed, the trade and consumption of wild animals has attracted much scrutiny since the outbreak began. Preserving natural habitats and stamping down on the wildlife trade are the central calls to action in the EU Commission’s new biodiversity strategy, for instance.
Indeed, farmers in the UK have long played a key role in maintaining wild flora and fauna, while Chinese authorities have recently strengthened their legislation on the rearing of wild species.
These are steps in the right direction. The indisputable truth is that human, animal and environmental health are all interlinked, which is why the pandemic response and recovery needs an integrated ’One Health’ approach, that includes changes to human behaviour and interactions with ecosystems.
Meanwhile, protecting animal health through vaccination, for example, prevents the spread of zoonotic diseases, or those which can pass between animals and people.
This is just one preventive measure farmers have been employing for decades to protect their herds, helping to curb transmission and even eradicating diseases entirely.
Moreover, we must not overlook how animal agriculture can benefit human health – both directly and indirectly.
Meat, milk, fish and eggs all provide convenient, accessible sources of highly nutritious and energy-dense food, full of vital vitamins and minerals, and contributing directly to human health and development, particularly for infants.
But it is not just our diets that benefit from animal agriculture, it is also livelihoods too, and these incomes are the means through which so many British families afford healthy diets and lifestyles.
The farming sector is constantly innovating to improve animal health, with the NFU working closely with all major retailers to make safe, nutritious and affordable British food available.
In doing so, it is helping improve the lives and livelihoods of people across the country and around the world.
Even as Covid-19 leaves food systems in disarray and the future uncertain, farmers continue their work regardless, to ensure that Britain does not go hungry. We can all help support them to uphold these standards by choosing British produce, ideally Red Tractor assured.
Opportunistic attempts to link the pandemic to animal farming risks cutting off our food to spite our plates.
We must not turn our backs on farmers, especially not now, when we should be thanking them more than ever.