Old age has its problems. A man approaching his centenary is reported to have complained: ‘I feel so old. I’ve had two hip replacements, bypass surgery, prostate cancer and diabetes. I’m half blind, can’t hear anything quieter than a jet engine. I take 40 different tablets a day that make me dizzy and subject to blackouts. I have bouts of dementia, poor circulation, and can’t remember my age or even my name sometimes. But, thank God, I still have my driving licence!’
This year marks an important centenary for many farmers. It was on December 10, 1908, that a meeting was held in an ante-room at the Smithfield Show to discuss whether a national organisation should be formed to represent the interests of farmers. The outcome was the NFU. Local branches throughout the country have been both celebrating their centenaries and reflecting on the future. Not for them the peace of a 100-year-old lady who was asked what was best about reaching that great age. She replied simply: ‘No peer pressure.’
Our agricultural history might seem a bit arbitrary at times, and the past 100 years have brought many problems to the farming community. Today, more than ever, farmers need to speak with a common voice as they face common difficulties.
Security is often a matter of perception, and what we might perceive in a picture as a whole is sometimes a world away from the reality behind the image. Take the recent harvest, for example. According to figures issued both by Defra and the NFU, 2008 har-vest estimates point to record wheat crops in the UK. The wheat harvest of 17.5 million tons is an increase of 32% on 2007.
But these numbers tell only half the story. They don’t reflect the flooded fields in areas of the North-East, parts of the Midlands, Wales and South-West. The numbers don’t show the requests of the NFU to Defra for a further temporary suspension of the rules governing the working of wet land as farmers and growers battle to get in crops from saturated fields. The anxieties caused by the current financial recession, the increased fuel prices and falling crop prices bring sleepless nights for men and women who have borrowed heavily. They may be sitting on substantial capital—the value of their land—but can only get at it by getting out.
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Food is important to me, not least in terms of living an active and healthy life. I remember the times while I was growing up in Uganda when we coped with very little food as a family. I still enjoy cooking for my family, and every year, I prepare a Christmas meal for my staff in York, with a choice of beef or turkey. I try to source food as locally as possible, and like to buy direct from farmers.
I am not alone in wishing to buy my food from a local supplier. A survey produced for the NFU by YouGov reported that 72% of shoppers want to be able to buy British beef and lamb, yet food travels farther today than it ever has. Some 40% of all freight is food-related; 29% of the vegetables and 89% of the fruit we eat are imported.
In spite of organic food’s environmental benefits at the point of production, more than half of that consumed in the UK is currently imported. At the same time as the self-sufficiency ratio is falling, we are also experiencing a growing sense of unease about the power of globally sourcing super-markets, together with the sharp decline in farm income, and public-health concerns with food safety. There is growing awareness of environmental issues; the potential for short-term interruptions to fuel supply, and longer-term concerns over energy security and climate change.
I’m not advocating a ban on any foods produced abroad. Rather, we should identify those foods that can be produced locally, and urge a return to a ‘buy British’ mindset for the food we eat. Not through some simplistic nationalism, but because of the plain sense it makes in terms of economy, sustainability and security.
Let’s take meat production as an example. The UK is the largest sheep producer in Europe and the third-largest beef producer. What reason is there to be buying these meats from abroad? Animal-welfare standards in the UK are second to none, likewise traceability arrangements. Additionally, the Red Tractor assurance scheme gives consumers added confidence from farm to packet, and the entire process from farm to supermarket shelf.
So for your Christmas dinner, buy British and buy local!