Could 2023 finally be the year that politicians begin to take food security seriously? Whisper it quietly, but there are some (very small) signs that the government may be remembering that it has a duty to ensure that its people are fed.
The increase in the allocation of six-month seasonal worker visas, to 45,000 this year may not be perfect, and may be too late for some growers, but are a step in the right direction. They suggest that both Defra and the Home Office have, as Defra minister Mark Spencer says, “listened to the horticulture sector.”
Since the announcement, more weight has been given to our industry’s need for seasonal labour has come from the recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (‘ICIBI’) which recognises that, ‘bringing foreign labour into the industry plays a pivotal role in the UK’s production of food and directly contributes to the country’s food security.’
Of course, food production doesn’t just need labour. In most cases it still requires significant amounts of land. New housing, rewilding, carbon management through re-wetting, and flood mitigation are just some of the competing land uses that horticultural producers in some key production areas face. Land use is a complicated balance, but it is positive that the Department for Levelling up, Housing & Communities (DLHC) says that under new planning policy guidance, the aims outlined in the National Food Strategy to maintain domestic food production at current levels should be recognised.
In other words, planning decisions should recognise the importance of the best agricultural grade land in maintaining food production. Again, maintaining domestic food production levels is a start, although figures suggest that home-grown production has fallen since Henry Dimbleby began work on his National Food Strategy. The most recent report from the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) research group shows that the country does not produce (or import) enough fresh produce to enable the population to eat the recommended five portions a day.
Since before Brexit, bodies like British Growers and the NFU have suggested that the UK could use its freedom outside the Common Agricultural Policy to improve the production of healthy fruit and vegetable crops and finally join together disjointed policies around food production, environmental management and public health. Although there is still no sign of such integrated thinking within Whitehall, it may be that the powers that be are finally starting to listen to some of the key messages that farmers and growers have been promoting for the last decade or more.
The importance of home-grown food to national security was raised last year by former MI5 director general Baroness Manningham-Buller at the NFU’s 2022 Henry Plumb Memorial Lecture in November. Not only did her comments make national news (providing a welcome boost to the NFU’s ongoing warnings about the effects of cost inflation and price suppression on production), but it appears that some politicians may have been listening.
The fact her comments were made at the Henry Plumb Memorial Lecture further highlights just what an important figure in agriculture the late Lord Plumb was. As NFU President Minette Batters said, “He was a brave man and great leader, and a good and kind man.” As our industry faces more and more challenges going forward, we will need more key figures of the same ilk.
The February issue also contains articles on
- Brassica Conference – challenging times foe leafy salads and brassica
- Croptech – discussing unprecedented uncertainty
- Machinery – Bejo Machinery show highlights
- Dutch Field Trials – Syngenta’s novelty highlights
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