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Why doesn’t Britain value its farmers? This crisis has shown we need to think very carefully about how the nation feeds itself

Local farmers are the backbone of food security. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

Local farmers are the backbone of food security. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images


March 31, 2020   6 mins

They say eight people in our little village have got this plague. It seems weird that it would have found its way here, to these isolated northern farming valleys, where the snow clings on to the high fells, and the woodsmoke rises from the scattered farmhouses.

I always imagined that the apocalypse would look a bit like the movie of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But this valley seems oblivious to the crisis — it is all daffodils, snowdrops, birdsong, and trees bursting into leaf.

My flock is down in the valley bottom. The first lamb of the year was born today and is now lying with its mother. I come in from the fields and the TV news is like something from a science-fiction movie — they are building giant makeshift hospitals in the city centers. People are dying in their hundreds every day. But not far from the farmhouse a duck has made a nest by our pond and has laid thirteen pale green eggs in the midst of a perfect downy circle.

It is hard to connect the green fields where I work each day with the world of the virus. Hard to think it is the same world. But, of course it is. The virus has shown how connected we really are.

Our elderly neighbours have locked themselves inside — we take them groceries and urge them to wash their hands and stay away from town. The schools have closed, so our children are helping us on the farm. And once a week, my wife travels to the local supermarket for supplies.

At first, she reported panic runs on face masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitiser, and toilet rolls; then it was staple foodstuffs, like rice, pasta, flour, and meat. Now, she describes the quiet (but very palpable) fear that has emerged about the robustness and resilience of our food supplies. The system doesn’t feel quite as permanent as it did.

It is because of that fear that people are hoarding. British people have a billion pounds’ worth more food in their homes than they did 10 days ago. Their panic and the subsequent spike in demand took stores — and Government — by surprise and we all need to calm down.

But the unexpected demand isn’t the whole story. The whole story is the fragility of our just-in-time food system, which the crisis has exposed.

It’s a logistically brilliant system — it has allowed us to shop whenever we want for whatever we want, regardless of season or whether harvests have been good or bad — but it isn’t nearly as robust as it might need to be. Like our banks, which we learnt in the 2007-8 banking crisis were “too big to fail”, we now have food systems that are so hyper-efficient that they have little slack capacity for a crisis.

And the crises are coming thick and fast — the Australian bush fires destroyed 140,000 sheep and cattle — and many orchards, vineyards and crops; the African swine fever in China has killed millions of pigs and is spreading. The farming systems we have created are vulnerable; the more specialised and monocultural and crowded they are, the greater the vulnerability.

The obsession with efficiency in our food economy has done its best to destroy a distributed local and diverse food economy — local abattoirs are now as rare as hen’s teeth, farmers markets have very limited capacity, and most areas are so specialised in their farming focus that they rarely produce the things that would give us a balanced diet.

Barely any of us know the fields that feed us or grow a significant share of what we eat. There is way too little local fruit and vegetable production in most areas, and there has been a general loss of the food culture that once existed to turn local products in to great meals.

The Herdwick lamb and mutton we produce was used to make countless different meals in the past, using the whole carcass. Today, we eat only the most expensive plastic-wrapped bits of a chicken, sheep, pig or cow; the lower value cuts are generally exported or processed. Such pickiness suddenly becomes a problem in a crisis, because if exports close down, or kebab places are in lockdown, the system backs up with products with no market. Last week, for example, sheep prices collapsed, because the system was suddenly frozen with confusion and log jams.

And after months of media noise about everyone going vegan, we can now see the reality laid bare in the supermarkets: people want the foodstuffs they have always eaten. The meat, milks, dairy and cheese shelves are noticeably empty, and the plant-based fake food shelves are remarkably well stocked and uncrowded — as my neighbour stated in the store, “No one really wants to eat that shit”.

The argument has always been that we simply don’t need the old, mixed farming systems anymore — in which farms produce crops and raise livestock. But is that true?

Normally, we don’t all shop, eat or cook from these local sources, but a food system isn’t safe if it only works in the good times. Like sound healthcare systems, sound food systems need to have slack capacity for freak events. Britain produces about 60% of the food it eats; the other 40% is imported. It probably isn’t sensible to aim for 100% self-reliance (growing bananas in greenhouses in cold wet places in Britain is daft), but we need to be really careful about dropping too far from current capacity. It will make us vulnerable in times of crisis.

Norway has a deeply protectionist food system that supports its farmers as a matter of national strategic importance. Farmers there, for example, produce 80-90% of the national demand for beef and sheep meat. Since large areas of Norway aren’t globally competitive for agriculture, it doesn’t want to ‘outsource’ what food production it is capable of and put its rural communities — where family-run farms drive the local economy — at risk. It may turn out to be a very sensible policy. Ask yourself whether you trust Donald Trump to keep food supply lines to Britain open in a time of genuine food crisis? Or whether he might look after America’s interests first?

Many of us were politely pointing all this out as we headed into discussions about a free trade deal with America, which might reduce the share of Britain’s diet that is produced domestically, if the gates are opened for cheap food to flood in from North America.

No one was listening.

Less than a month ago, a UK government advisor, Professor Tim Leunig, was quoted in leaked emails as saying we didn’t need farmers, because the value of their output was a tiny share of the UK economy and we could import all the food we needed, perhaps at lower prices.

And for the past decade, a virulent strain of anti-farming environmentalism, led by noisy hard-Left radicals such as George Monbiot, has argued for us to turn away from farming towards producing food in synthetic industrial ways (with the promised pay-off of freeing more land for wild nature). This ‘land-sparing’ obsession embraces the worst industrial farming and corporate food systems.

Coming, as it does, from both ends of the political spectrum, this end-of-farming narrative is deeply worrying. My farming neighbours were rolling their eyes in disbelief a month ago at the absurdity of it all.

The obvious truth is that it takes a lot of food to feed 65 million souls — a fact that is so easily forgotten in the good times. With a full belly, everyone knows better than farmers how to manage land, and how to care for the countryside.

The lunatic anti-farming voices are rather quiet at the moment, though. The national discussion is, instead, about empty shelves, whether our food supplies are secure, and discussing whether farmers and others in the food sector are classified as ‘key workers’. Suddenly, more measured experts are being given airtime, farmers are being listened to — and our value understood.

Today, an estimated 8.4 million people are at risk of running short of food — and food banks won’t cope with that sort of demand. The closure of restaurants, pubs, cafes and bars hasn’t helped: we get something like 25% of our calories from these places nowadays. And the supermarkets are going to experience demand unlike anything they have ever known — with challenges that they aren’t used to coping with. Our fruit and vegetable farms often rely upon migrant seasonal workers who can now no longer travel to the work.

Professor Tim Lang, one food system expert, is now openly calling for the UK government to impose food rationing before we descend into a greater crisis. It’s no wonder people are panicking and behaving in ways we haven’t seen in generations.

There is public fear that our food system might not be up to it, but I think we probably can avoid a genuine food crisis in the developed world. Governments have responded relatively quickly to this virus, and it will be overcome. You shouldn’t read this piece and panic.

Instead, you should stay calm and shop sensibly. And you should eat what you buy: remember, we waste 40% of our food.

We do however need to think very carefully about how the nation feeds itself, because in the long run we will need a truly robust and resilient food system, with strong local food economies. This is our wake-up call to respect farming once more — not uncritically: we have an absolute right to want more nature on farmland, high welfare standards for farm animals, and safe and healthy food. But Britain must seek to understand and remember the value of farming and food production.

Things are going to get a whole lot worse if, after this is all over, we continue as though nothing has changed and throw British farmers to the mercy of global free trade and systems that are big, bad and ugly. We need to protect this key national resource so it is there for us through thick and thin.

Because if another disaster strikes — and it will — then I want a significant share of my diet to be available within walking distance of where I live. I want to know where I can source food for my family, and if that means I pay a bit more for food in the good times, then so be it. As one Twitter wag recently posted, the City of London may offer a better way to get rich than farming, but “You can’t eat credit default swaps, kids”.


James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.

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Russel Moffat
Russel Moffat
4 years ago

Wisdom in an age and culture of waste ignorance and arrogance.Thank you James.! Despite the sadness and pain of the crisis for many people hopefully it will be a wake-up call to all of us. May we not forget in the “light” what we learned in the “dark.” After this is over, and one day it will be, may we discover a motivation to lived changed lives with changed attitudes for the betterment of our communities and our nation.

greaterflamingo918
greaterflamingo918
4 years ago

James, I am reading your article in my kitchen on our family ranch in coastal northern California. I will keep my comments brief. I trust cows more than I do chemists. I want to eat real food not some synhetic mix up produced in a lab. Keep up the good job of producing quality food. BTW I look forward to reading your next book. Enjoyed the first one very much

roger grenville
roger grenville
4 years ago

James. I don’t necessarily agree with everything here, but on the main point, you are bang on. We are screwing up food because it’s not trivial enough for us. We like to deal with things in inverse proportion of their importance; meaning that it matters far more to us, for example, whether Philip Schofield is fulfilled (because it doesn’t remotely effect us) than whether we get a trade deal with the EU and the US (because it requires us to actually think). Whilst we think like this, food security, and farmers’ welfare, doesn’t stand a chance. The optimist in me says that the Covid-19 outbreak will recalibrate everything.

lvigero
lvigero
4 years ago

Well, civilisation are built on agriculture not the other way around.

Patrick Cosgrove
Patrick Cosgrove
4 years ago

All the very sensible things you say provide all the reasons why George Monbiot is right to argue for cultured meat. If we wish to be more self sufficient in food, if we wish to restore nature (and I’m not sure if you do having read this article), and if our population is not going to shrink rapidly in the foreseeable future, there is not enough land to do both without moving to a diet that involves less meat. But you can be part of the solution. If you are an upland farmer it is pointless moving away from meat (leave that to others). You continue to produce good quality, grass-fed livestock for meat which people eat less often. You get paid subsidies to hand over some of your land to nature. You provide biopsies from prize animals from which cultured meat is grown. What is wrong with that?

bob alob
bob alob
4 years ago

Unfettered globalisation is the problem, hopefully after the current pandemic is over, the world will put the brakes on.

Hugh R
Hugh R
4 years ago

There is no real madness in food hoarding in many people’s minds.
They have become aware that we import half our food, and now realise half the world is in lockdown at harvest time in some parts of the globe and planting in others, the currency is tanking, economic activity may well return to something approaching normal….but what if it doesn’t? Add in the fact our biggest city and administrative centre is the virus hotspot, and riven with lawlessness, stabbings, and ethnically separated enclaves, and maybe they have a point?

Kant Remember
Kant Remember
4 years ago

James. You’ve written an interesting, good article, with some excellent points. But where do you get this nonsense ” “Š British people “Š have panicked” ? Sure, some did, may be millions, how would I know ? Or you ?
Maybe you’re the one who must calm down. Rash generalisations do no good.

John Barrett
John Barrett
4 years ago

I thought what you have written is interesting well argued etc. but I think it unhelpfull to lable those that disagree with you with words like ‘lunatic’. It means they will never listen to your side of the discusion and you will never convert. Otherwise, keep up the good work.

nickhuntster
nickhuntster
4 years ago

It’s hard to think of Donald Trump not helping out the British in times of trouble, given his Scottish mum, his famous respect for the Queen and Churchill, and his general Anglophilia. Compare to Obama threatening us over voting wrong in the Referendum! Would Janes Rebanks trust him more? And it’s strange that Norway is praised for putting Norway’s interests first, but not Trump.

Jerry W
Jerry W
4 years ago

The Times said: “On average, English
farms made a £39,000 profit last year from their farming business. Only
£2,100 of this came from agriculture, which is what springs to many
people’s mind when they think of farming.”
If that is the case, how could anyone possibly claim we don’t value farmers? We seem to be almost their only source of income.
I
know perfectly well that the matter is not so simple. Overall,
agriculture is a complex issue with a number of strands. It deserves a
more reasoned approach than such simplistic
generalisations as “Britain doesn’t value its farmers.”

HUGH COATES
HUGH COATES
3 years ago

There is a strategy that would provide real support for, let’s call it, CRAFT FARMING.
The enormous amount of press and media exposure rightly given to James Rebanks’ latest book English Pastoral shows that there is at least a proportion of the public who understand the value of
traditional rather than industrial farming.
The steadily increasing sales of food produce from organic farms shows that there is a premium market. Organic produce is identified by clear labelling.
Farmers such as James Rebanks and thousands of others like him could organise a CRAFT FARMING ASSOCIATION and market their produce clearly labelled. A small premium price would be well justified. Support from discerning consumers would be more stable than any form of government subsidies.

HUGH COATES
HUGH COATES
3 years ago

There is a strategy that would provide real support for, let’s call it, CRAFT FARMING.
The enormous amount of press and media exposure rightly given to James Rebanks’ latest book English Pastoral shows that there is at least a proportion of the public who understand the value of
traditional rather than industrial farming.
The steadily increasing sales of food produce from organic farms shows that there is a premium market. Organic produce is identified by clear labelling.
Farmers such as James Rebanks and thousands of others like him could organise a CRAFT FARMING ASSOCIATION and market their produce clearly labelled. A small premium price would be well justified. Support from discerning consumers would be more stable than any form of government subsidies.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

Food security is very important but this doesn’t mean we should aim to produce 100% of our food in the UK. Diversity of supply gives resilience.

chriskitcher
chriskitcher
4 years ago

But it does mean that we should consider the provenance of the food in relation to quality and not just cost at any price.

Robin P
Robin P
4 years ago

Diversity of supply gives resilience.

On the contrary, local availability gives reslience. A survey in Birmingham found that “local” had to be redefined as up to 60 miles away, because there was no food supply within just 30 miles. I myself still remember the many orchards and other farms which no longer exist or have been converted to car-dependent “village” lifestyles. All is fine until you can no longer afford the oil supply (or it fails to be supplied anyway). Try hauling a cart of food by hand even two miles let alone 60, and you will understand why each village had its own barns and milking parlours until very recently..

Sarah Lambert
Sarah Lambert
4 years ago

Excellent article.

rallytally64
rallytally64
4 years ago

If your wife is in town every week does that mean food that could be grown and reared on farm is brought home. If so then you are a typical modern farmer, maybe pharmer. If the purpose of farming is food then surely more farmers could attempt to feed local populations having first fed themselves. Added value is not grown or reared by modern farmers who have been pig in a poked into actual units of largely subsidised production of materials that release added value profits to others, namely processors, supermarkets and Wall st.
Turn that wheel around and the benefits will accrue to the primary producer who largely never meets the consumer, a tragedy for us all.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  rallytally64

Well it’s not that easy for the primary producer to convert and package the raw materials into food for public consumption. It would require the farmer to hire people, buy equipment, and build production facilities etc. All in line with very stringent ‘elf n safety regulations.

Nor is it very efficient in most cases. It’s all very nice for the middle classes to pop along to a farm shop from time to time, but for many people it is not affordable or practical.

Of course, it can be done and I know of local pubs etc that only sell local meat. And that’s great. But on the whole the current system is extraordinarily efficient and probably the only way of feeding millions of people affordably.

xristostalia
xristostalia
4 years ago

We don’t value farmers because they are seen as a load of mumpers subsidised to the hilt. If a garage cannot make it pay they go out of business and are replaced by people who can by working smarter. A garage owner gets no subsidies whatsoever while virtually every breath a farmer takes is subsidised. If a farmer can’t make it pay then he should give up farming and let someone else who can do the job properly take over. There should be no protections or subsidies in any shape or form, it should be a case of move on or move out. People are sick to death of their constant mumping on the ordinary taxpayer

cally hill
cally hill
4 years ago
Reply to  xristostalia

Spot on. Well said. Any farmer who owns land is by definition rich because the price of land in this country is outrageous and fertile land price is through the roof. We need a new Doomsday Book. 50percent of farmers own their land and milk the subsidies too. Land is being kept from being rewilded just so they can claim it is farming land, even when they are not using it.

perrywidhalm
perrywidhalm
4 years ago

That’s an easy one to answer …. Britain is highly-urbanized and city folk have ALWAYS devalued the very people that make their banal, boring lives possible.

cally hill
cally hill
4 years ago

You’re uninformed comments are one of the reasons people probably don’t respect farmers. To get respect, you have to give respect. If you had any understanding of science you would know that a vegetarian diet is healthy. People have a right to choose whether they eat meat or not. One of the main reason people have no respect for poultry and pig farmers is because they are not farmers anymore . The are factory workers. Go and check out some modern farms. i am sure if it was easy to do, they would happily stick sheep in factories and abuse them too. And you adding to the ridiculous scaremongering is just going to fuel the hysteria . We have far too much food in this country and too many people are overweight. It won’t hurt people to cut down. Supermarkets are disgusting, they are so overflowing with rubbish. Mostly processed meat crap. And as for the meat being cleared off the shelves, well so is he veggie stuff. I cannot buy any of the veggie products I would normally buy because the shelves are cleared of them. Farming subsidies are benefits for the rich. If you are a landowner in Britain then you are a very rich man. Why should you get subsidies. Farmers should have to compete in the market like everybody else.

nickhuntster
nickhuntster
4 years ago
Reply to  cally hill

Did you hear about the high suicide rates for many of the UK’s struggling smaller farmers? They aren’t rich and don’t get huge EU subsidies for their land and produce, unlike the grain barons or elitist remainers such as Heseltine. Is that your idea of fair competition?

cally hill
cally hill
4 years ago
Reply to  nickhuntster

How could I fail to hear the mainstream media mantra of the poor farmers. Try being on the streets. Everyone suffers. I lost my partner and brother (aged 16) through suicide. You won’t play on my heart strings so don’t bother.