Helen Browning, Soil Association ceo and organic farmer, shares her thoughts on how the UK can build a more resilient and sustainable food system which would be less exposed to short term shocks and restore a safe climate, abundant nature and good nutrition with Government help.
Just when we thought we might finally get some answers over what Brexit will mean for British farmers, our whole world has been thrown into disarray as we unite to fight the spread of coronavirus.
As we close our doors and ground our planes, the importance of British farming has never been so clear, and never in our lifetimes has it been more important to provide farmers with confidence to keep growing good food.
But for that to happen, the Brexit negotiations and timescale must be delayed.
Government should step in with measures to ensure that the market and labour availability issues arising from this crisis, as well as from Brexit, will not impact unduly at farm level.
At this extraordinary and stressful time, farmers face uncertainty from all sides and are asking many questions that require immediate answers.
How can we grow more fresh produce, at a time when there are huge concerns about labour to plant and pick? Will we be able to export beef and lamb? Who will buy the milk that previously went to cafes and food service?
There is a long list of challenges.
But this list should no longer include immediate fears over the implications of Brexit and new trade deals.
Those are important issues, but they are can be pushed back until we have dealt with this pandemic and taken the opportunity to re-evaluate what we will need in the future from our food system.
For instance, we already can see longer ‘just in time’ supply chains have a higher risk of chaos if one element goes wrong.
Farmers and growers need assistance now to help feed the nation, both today and for the coming months. The market will help in this, but government has a key role to play.
For example, government must enable us recruit and train the people needed to harvest British produce; there are plenty of folk who could be available for this in theory, but they will be less skilled and perhaps less motivated than experienced field workers.
It is essential to give reassurances to growers that if they plant now, they won’t be left with fields of rotting food later.
Help to stabilise markets will also be needed.
And we would agree with those who argue that this is not the year to start reducing direct farm support - let’s create stability and continuity where we can, given these extraordinary circumstances.
Looking ahead, the UK will bounce back – but do we want to bounce back to how things used to be?
The coronavirus pandemic will eventually pass, but the climate and nature crises are not going away.
How do we build a more resilient and sustainable food system which is both less exposed to short term shocks and better able to restore a safe climate, abundant nature and good nutrition?
For example, should we reduce our reliance on imports for fresh fruit and vegetables? How do we build on the great examples of more local and direct food networks springing up everywhere and help them persist beyond the crisis?
These are big questions for post-Brexit food and farming policy, but for now, we must deal with the market and labour distortions that imperil farming’s ability to survive through this crisis, so that we can continue our core role at the front line of society’s wellbeing.
You can find Helen tweeting at @HelenBOrganic