“Do we feed the pigs and stay in debt, or sell up?” This is the question plaguing Kate Morgan, a pig farmer from Yorkshire who is desperately trying to alert the public to the backlog of animals stuck on UK farms. “I’ve had some heartbreaking conversations with people who don’t know where to turn,” she told me over the phone. “If something is not changed in six months, we’ll have no pig farmers; we can’t keep taking the losses we’ve got.”
Too many British farmers like Morgan’s family are on their knees. Post-Brexit trade with Europe has plummeted. A shortage of abattoir workers has stranded pigs on farms. War in Ukraine is further pushing up the prices of feed and fertiliser. And now a severe outbreak of avian flu (which has forced poultry to be kept indoors) means that free range chicken farmers will, from 21 March, have to accept “barn-raised” labels and lower returns.
Meanwhile, the wider cost-of-living crisis has put consumers in no position to offer support by paying for increased prices at the tills. “Right now, the combination of soaring inflation and the inadequacy of our social security system mean that hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to afford the essentials,” the Trussell Trust charity said in a statement. The increase of food and fuel prices in the wake of the Ukraine conflict are only likely to further deepen poverty’s pull, it warned.
With the global price of food at an all-time high (and set to rise by a further 20 per cent), it is easy for the government to lay responsibility for increases on global trends. Surging oil costs, port disruptions and squeezed incomes during Covid-19 have been, to a large extent, beyond its control, while climate change-induced extreme weather has cut into harvests across the world, from North America to Malaysia. “Just when you think hell on Earth can’t get any worse, it does,” the head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, said earlier this month, in response to the conflict in Ukraine, which together with Russia produces nearly a third of the world’s wheat.
However, there are solutions that the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak does have the power to implement. The mid-20th century model of food production bequeathed Britain a corporate-heavy, highly internationalised vision that prioritised low prices at the expense of environmental safety, animal welfare and people’s health, warned Professor Tim Lang in a recent interview with the New Statesman. Changing that is now essential.
The first line of such food defence, many campaigners suggest, is ensuring the public has the purchasing power to support the kind of high-welfare, sustainable farming that multiple polls show people do want to protect. “UK food is actually incredibly cheap,” explained Vicki Hird of the Sustain Alliance. The answer isn’t to make it cheaper still, but to “make sure [people] can afford decent food for their families”.
One way to do this, according to the Trussell Trust, is to raise benefit payments in line with the forecasted rate of inflation. Another, suggested Hird, is to reduce energy bills by implementing a national home insulation campaign. (A “one-off windfall tax on the booming profits of oil and gas producers”, as pressed for by Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, would be a good place to raise funds for such a scheme.)
A second course of action involves not bowing to vested interests that would see green reform rolled back in the face of war. From calls for trees and hedges to be stripped away from field edges to make more space for crops, to increasing fertiliser use, lobby groups across Europe are pushing to cut green tape in the name of food sovereignty.
Instead the emphasis should be on not wasting land. Growing crops for biofuels, especially when the global price of wheat is soaring, is an unconscionable, false energy economy. More controversially, eating less (but better, higher-welfare) meat would help to free up more land for feeding humans directly. An additional 350 million people could be fed if plant-based diets replaced animal-based ones, according to one estimate.
Alongside all this, there is an urgent need for the government to scale up its plans to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy support scheme for farmers with greener, agroecology-based payments. Such payments should not only provide enough funding to protect wildlife, but also to ensure that farmers and British food survives and thrives.
The lessons being learned from energy policy should be a warning here. New analysis shows that UK energy bills would be up to £8.3bn (or £150 per household) lower than they are now if the former Conservative prime minister David Cameron had not cut “green crap” policies in 2013.
Today’s cost-of-living crisis must not be used to undermine a sustainable, high-welfare future for British farms – only big agriculture corporations, not consumers, will benefit if the British government chooses this as its path forward.