Sheep farmer and columnist Monica Akehurst questions how much more squeezing farmers can take?

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, so I’ve requested the armchair photo be replaced by one showing me hard at work! Refuelled, I’ll then step onto my soapbox and have a rant. Then feeling so much better I’ll get stuck into the work.

I wonder how much more ‘squeezing’ farmers can take? I’m fed up with the experts sitting behind desks telling us to be more efficient. Farmers are working all hours in all conditions, trying to do the best with our soil and livestock to earn a living out of agriculture. It’s more than just a job, but like all businesses farming needs to move forward with the times. Most changes however, require some monetary input and right now, many farmers are struggling to make ends meet. So it’s increasingly difficult to invest in the future. Perhaps someone could send a memo to the policy makers asking: How this precarious state of affairs encourages the young to pursue a career in Agriculture?  I also point out, that not all farmers are subsidy-junkies, some of us actually care about what we do.

It’s beginning to feel like a rat race. Is farming going in the right direction? Keeping the supermarkets supplied appears to be a highly risky, thankless task. Recent media coverage has shown large retailer practice in its true light, driving farmers out of business. Who in their right mind wants to be part of that? Not me. Although economies of scale make sense from some aspects, at what cost? Is this really the best way forward? A long food chain results in more food miles incurring higher environmental impact, food wastage and less money for the producer which is demoralising. As the primary producer farmers do have a choice where and how to sell products. Perhaps a culture of more cooperation would strengthen a farmers position. We need to regain some control and aim to be price makers not price takers; the dilemma is how to achieve this goal. Now off the soapbox.

Tilley and I both thoroughly enjoyed the shooting season which has now sadly ended. We learnt lots, including that men are equally as good at talking as women! Good banter though. In search of adventure and avoiding chores, I offered to attend “the Crunch – chew it over: a dramatised dialogue event” funded by the Wellcome Trust. An independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. The Crunch is described as: ‘a new public engagement and education initiative that aims to enlighten audiences about the global connections between our food, our health and our planet. The future of food is one of the biggest challenges. It’s time to take a fresh look at our relationship with food, and be inspired to create the recipe for a happier, healthier future.’  Hallelujah! Best go along to voice a grass root farmer opinion throwing in my two-pence worth amongst the foodie free thinkers.

The programme included presentations from Professor Peter Gregory, Food Security, University of Reading and Dr John Ingram, Food Systems, University of Oxford. They gave us interesting facts and projections like ‘Nearly every country in the world faces serious health problems linked to the consumption of either too little nutrient-rich food or too much energy-dense food.’ (International Food policy research institute, 2015). Obesity and overweight is increasing globally. It contributes to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and joint pain which causes suffering and costs money to treat. In 2025 the global population is estimated to be 8 billion, 4 billion of which will be over consuming. Contrastingly 1 billion people are still hungry today. ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, economic and social access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life.’ (UN -FAO world food summit 1996, 2012)

Discussions revealed that participants recognised, convenience often prevails when making decisions around food and drink. A lack of time for appreciation of food was cited as a key societal issue. The food system was said to be over complex with a serious lack of clarity about safety and nutritional value and what constitutes a healthy diet. Raising awareness of sustainability, environmental factors, traceability of food, education and campaigning were seen as essential. But questions were asked ‘Does the food industry want products to be healthier? Does Government? Better diets would save the NHS money. It was realised that the public at large is not aware that collectively they have the power to change industry; this was seen as an opportunity.

Predicted Global changes include: a more urbanised population, more people better off – demanding resources, more variable weather conditions and rising sea levels. Our future diet is expected to consist of a wider variety of plants together with less, but better quality meat. Consumers are likely to be more conscious and informed about health and growing links between diet and good health, demanding innovation and greater responsibility from retailers or businesses. The food industry would be wise to gear up for this. A dysfunctional food chain is not helpful. I suggest that together DEFRA, Agricultural unions, and retailers should aim to create a fairer working food system. Not just words, we need coordinated action that benefits all mankind.

Debate is healthy, fun and sometimes inspirational. Brexit has sparked some lively conversations encompassing a wide range of opinions. ‘The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t’, contrasting with ‘put barbed wire around the UK and block the tunnel’. However the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. The EU referendum casts a net of uncertainty, undoubtedly the result will  affect our future.

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A version of this article first appeared in the South East Farmer

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