Before the UK Government embarks on a “Global Britain” campaign it should consider getting its own house in order first – unless it wishes to see a future where produce from around the world displaces our own.

Back in February 2020, senior government adviser Dr Tim Leunig sparked controversy when he told the UK Government the food sector in the UK wasn’t critically important, particularly agriculture and fishery production. He argued in favour of Britain becoming more like Singapore and importing the majority of its food.

As you can imagine, his comments didn’t sit well with farming lobby groups who responded with furore, and the Government was quick to issue a statement refuting his suggestions and reiterating the importance of food and farming to the UK economy.

Fast-forward 20 months and what might have been seen as dismissible, even laughable, comments at the time, are showing real signs of seeping into post-Brexit Government thinking, as farmers and food production slide down the agenda of a new global Britain.

This became increasingly apparent during last week’s announcement of the “Made in the UK, Sold to the World” campaign launched by the Department for International Trade, which bids to get more British firms exporting, to reach £1 trillion a year export target by 2030.

On the one hand, this should be regarded as a positive move, encouraging more businesses to increase productivity and reach global audiences but, on the other, it dismisses the fact so many UK businesses are being squeezed to the point of collapse and stand no chance of competing in a global trade environment.

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The UK Government is neglecting its own domestic food supply chains, ignoring persistent cries from businesses to help with labour shortages and rising inputs, which is leading to many choosing to close their doors.

Only last week, Defra secretary George Eustice got tangled up in a web of lies during an evidence session with the environment, food and rural affairs committee, where he told members it wasn’t until this past September that pig processors first raise concerns over labour shortages. He repeatedly told the committee their concern was in regaining access to the Chinese market to sell pork, and labour was short but not their main priority.

On the contrary, organisations like the National Pig Association have been in crisis talks with Defra over labour shortages since February, which is on public record, yet the government still failed to act in time to issue visas for overseas butchers. And in the past few weeks we have seen 14,000 pigs culled and wasted on farms across the country due to processing challenges.

To make matter worse, Mr Eustice likened the problems facing pig farmers to that of arable farmers, who face disease destroying their crops – it’s a commercial risk they both must take, he said.

Wrong! The lack of butchers and other labour shortages more widely are not an act of nature or something farmers should accept as out of their control, but a result of the UK Government’s own doing and insistence on standing by an immigration policy that is strangling the supply of staff to our food and processing industry – an immigration policy that supports the free movement of ballet dancers not butchers.

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Too many journalists of late have picked up on the labour crisis headlines and have become obsessed with warnings over Christmas being cancelled, yet miss the point that food is for life not just for Christmas.

If action isn’t taken now to restore confidence levels and safeguard food businesses, then there won’t be a strong and resilient domestic food market, let alone an export market that can go toe to toe with some of the world’s biggest exporters.

While farmers in this country are having to comply with strict levels of animal health and food standards, whilst struggling to make ends meet in a market where inflation and outrageous fertiliser prices are crushing any margins, the UK Government continues to wave in imports from the EU without checks at the border and without the same burdensome export costs our own producers have to endure.

Despite the fact African Swine Fever – one of the most concerning global diseases in the past decade – is sweeping across Europe and infecting pig herds, our supermarket shelves are bulging with German pork that is allowed to pass into our country without any health checks.

In a new Brexit world, we were sold the story we would “take back control”, yet the reality is the EU holds all the cards and we hold none. The UK Government has the power to set the rules, yet it directs them against their own and, slowly but surely, we can hear the toll of Dr Tim Leunig’s words becoming a reality.

The UK is blessed with a fantastic climate for producing food yet, by failing to safeguard our own domestic food supply, we could be looking at importing more of our food and turning the nations farmers into park guardians who can’t see a positive and vibrant future in food production.

So soon after the eyes of the world fell on the UK to position itself as a leader on climate change during COP26, we embark on a future that looks to sell out our farmers and export our climate responsibilities.

It is not too late for the UK Government to stand up for, and protect, its own, and to start listening to the concerns of those they are elected to represent.

 

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.