Veganuary, solar farms, neonicotinoids, greenwash… it’s all there in the first talk of our winter series
The first speaker in our series of winter talks didn’t pull any punches when he got things under way this week with The Importance of British Food Production.
Essex farmer Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farming Union, gave the talk via Zoom to a healthy audience of 29 people on Wednesday (January 26).
Launching straight into the issues of the day, Mr Bradshaw said that, while he believed in the concepts of enhancing wildlife diversity and rewilding, this should be delivered alongside farming – not instead of.
Brexit was never going to escape mention and the speaker lamented the UK’s loss of opportunity to lead the world in farming standards post-EU. He feared we were in fact involved in a race to the bottom.
Stressing the importance of international trade, he wanted to see fair trade not free trade.
Citing climate change as the challenge of our time, Mr Bradshaw said we should take carbon emissions into account in trade. We all needed to own the issue, while it would be good to see other countries show the UK’s commitment to zero-carbon.
Again, the thorny issue of carbon border adjustment, particularly in relation to trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, represented a missed opportunity to set the standard for future trade deals. With regard to a New Zealand deal, Mr Bradshaw wanted the UK to get “at least what Australia got”.
On to Veganuary… which he respected but said did not use transparent data.
Food security was taken too lightly, we were told, especially in view of world political instability. If a country lost its productive capacity, it never got it back (see Zimbabwe).
We were likely to witness substantial price inflation over the coming year, but with supermarkets doing all they could to keep down prices there would be impacts on food producers, who needed fair returns so they could invest for the future.
Agriculture was unique, said Mr Bradshaw, in that it was both a producer of carbon emissions and a carbon sink, essentially via the soil.
If there was one thing we could all do, it was to ‘eat local, eat seasonal’. We should not expect to have everything on the shelves all the time, especially as this led to waste.
Another contentious issue is that of pesticides – we had to use the latest science to feed the world’s 10 billion people, said Mr Bradshaw. Neonicotinoids produce a particularly heated debate, but we were told that there was no scientific evidence to show they harmed bees. With regard to their specific use on sugar beet, this was a non-flowering crop so didn’t attract pollinators anyway.
Back to Australia, it was possible that producers there could be using any number of substances on beet that weren’t permitted in this country, where we have one of the strictest regimes in the world.
Solar farms next! The NFU supported field-scale solar – such projects helped meet the climate-change challenge, while sheep could be grazed on-site and nectar mixes planted.
Finally, Mr Bradshaw said the NFU believed that the UK was at the forefront of food production but that the industry needed the tools to do the job – farmers couldn’t fight with their hands tied behind their backs.
And no one should forget that farming was a vital part of our rural communities.
CPRE chairman David Knight then got the question-and-answer section going, asking what profit margins farmers could expect on lettuces. Mr Bradshaw replied that there were probably negative margins here and we were seeing a switch to lettuce production in Senegal.
Referring to the issue of foreign labour, he shared a quote that if you don’t bring in the people, you’re exporting the industry and importing the food. Wage differentials could be colossal, with, for example, a Nepalese worker earning as little as 57 pence a day in their home country but able to earn £60-£80 a day in the UK – this money allowed such people to create opportunities at home.
Some 1,500 workers had been due to come to the UK from Nepal last year, but this had been stopped by the Covid-19 pandemic. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have such problems this year.
Tricia Moxey, CPRE Essex vice-president, asked about the locking-up of soils. Mr Bradshaw said he wondered if the concept of regenerative agriculture was an example of ‘greenwash’ – farmers had always looked after the soil, while regenerative agriculture was a difficult process to manage as there was always the need to distribute soil to facilitate the growing of potatoes, for example. Regenerative agriculture could work as a wider system, he felt, but it was not always possible to work in that specific way.
Richard Haynes asked if the NFU differentiated between farmland of differing quality in its policy on solar farms. Indeed it did, Mr Bradshaw responded, and he believed that solar farms should be sited on Grade 3b or 4 farmland rather than on that of higher quality.
Personally, he thought there was a need to invest in nuclear power, which was more efficient than, for example, anaerobic digesters.
In turn, Mr Haynes said he feared that the NFU had a blanket policy on solar farms that could be improved.
On the matter of farmer clusters, Mr Bradshaw was supportive of the concept, which highlighted the need for both environmental protection and healthy financial returns, but it did need funding.
As he said, you can’t be green if you’re in the red.
And lastly, asked how CPRE was viewed in the agricultural community and whether we could work together more closely, Mr Bradshaw stated his personal nervousness that the charity would always object to farming projects.
He wanted to communicate with as many audiences as possible. Getting a return from food production was very difficult and it would be helpful if more people understood that. Every county had an NFU office with an adviser – and this presented a good opportunity to have a conversation. We could disagree without falling out.
And so say all of us!