Farmers are responsible not only for putting food on the shelves and supplying our thriving hospitality sector, but also shoulder much of the responsibility for safeguarding our environment and cherished rural landscapes.
Yet sometimes I fear that Parliament loses sight of this fact, caught up in national or international policy or else distracted by the sometimes more visible challenges facing urban communities. We must not let this happen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The consequences of any serious crisis in the agricultural and horticultural sectors would be severe, and extend far beyond those sectors themselves.
Imagine trying to re-open pubs and restaurants, only to find that the complex supply chains needed to supply them had collapsed? How many more vulnerable businesses might go under as a result? How much more taxpayers’ money would need to be spent keeping the hospitality sector on extended economic life-support?
This is a real possibility. Many companies in those supply chains operate on long lead-in times, and cannot easily wind their operations down or up in line with the broader lockdown policy. In the short-term, that means large volumes of produce are being dumped. In the medium to long-term it could mean the closure of thousands of businesses and a permanent reduction in domestic production.
Across the industry, alarm bells are sounding. According to the Horticultural Trades Association, one in three businesses are likely to go insolvent this year, even with the current support being offered by the Government – and with more than one in ten warning they will be out of business by the end of June. Some plants may soon not be available from British growers for up to two years.
Likewise, local dairymen here in Shropshire are deeply concerned about the current situation, and I know that the National Farmers’ Union has written to MPs to set out in detail the specific challenges facing their members across the country, many of whom are trapped between fixed costs and reduced demand and are being forced to sell cows to stay afloat.
The common thread between all these warnings is that farmers and growers are falling between the cracks of the current coronavirus support measures. The current furlough rules, for example, don’t factor in the particular patterns of work necessary for processing businesses, and the relaxation of VAT reporting is of little help to the around 90 per cent of farmers who are unincorporated.
Fortunately, do date the Government has proven more than willing to adapt its policies to the situation on the ground. We have already seen important changes to the rules on business loans and the unveiling of the Retail and Hospitality Grant Scheme, a targeted programme tailored to the specific needs of businesses in that sector.
It’s clear that we need an equivalent for the agricultural and horticultural sectors as soon as possible. This should include support for businesses which have been forced to dispose of stock, and adaptations to existing provisions to make them more accessible and relevant to the needs of the industry.
I also strongly support calls for garden centres to be allowed to re-open – with appropriate social distancing in place – as soon as possible. It’s ridiculous that ornamental growers are in crisis when so many of us are stuck at home with our gardens and window boxes!
This ought to be a moment of huge opportunity for UK farming. Our departure from the European Union means Parliament has a chance to take back control of agricultural regulation and replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a system much more closely tailored to British conditions and priorities.
It also lifts the restrictions that have so far prevented us from banning live animal exports, which so many voters consider to be a barbaric practice.
Even the current crisis might, if handled properly, have a silver lining. This pandemic has exposed as never before the fragility of global supply chains and the importance of local producers. I hope that better support from the Government will be matched by a renewed determination on the part of the nation’s shoppers to ‘buy British’.
But first we must ensure that UK farming survives the next few months. The industry is clear on what’s needed, and we politicians must respond.
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