What challenges is the agriculture sector facing?

East Anglia is Britain’s breadbasket and a centre for horticulture, pig and poultry farming. The region’s farmers produced crops and livestock worth £3.9 billion in 2021, across 1.4 million hectares of land.

Published in Essex Director Magazine Spring | Summer 2023

Farming: NFU East Anglia

Farmers can do even more to produce climate-friendly food, enhance the environment and help British agriculture reach net zero by 2040 with the right policies and support in place.

Here, NFU Regional Policy Manager Charles Hesketh outlines the key challenges needed to be overcome, to allow East Anglia’s agriculture to deliver for the economy, the environment and the public.

Future funding for agriculture

Farm support payments have been in place in one form or another since World War Two, introduced to make food affordable for everyone. Following the EU referendum, then Environment Secretary Michael Gove published the ‘Health and Harmony’ document, setting the scene for moving away from the EU common agricultural policy of area-based payments over a transition period to a new landscape of ‘public money for public goods’.

With these existing payments being fully phased out by 2027, and the same pot of money promised to be available to farmers, a new raft of schemes and grants is being rolled out. Of these new schemes falling under the Environmental Land Management Schemes banner is the Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme, rewarding farmers for taking steps to increase soil health, water quality, climate change mitigation and animal health and welfare, through a range of measures such as planting over winter cover crops and encouraging hedgerows to grow out.

Alongside this scheme, and existing schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, is a new range of grants. These include capital funds towards equipment and technology, water management and slurry infrastructure.

It is disappointing that progress on this agricultural transition has been painfully slow so far and there is still a worrying lack of transparency on how the money is being spent.

A skilled and secure farm workforce

Access to labour, both fulltime and seasonal, is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. The NFU’s recent farmer confidence survey found that only 37% of farms had sufficient permanent labour, with the figure for seasonal labour even lower at 12%.

All first world countries rely on overseas labour to help through harvest. We know from extensive efforts over the past few years that UK workers want year-round job security and less physical work, so recruiting from the domestic pool simply doesn’t work.

Agriculture is fortunate to have a seasonal workers scheme, the only one of any sector, with the 55,000 visas a hard fought battle. However, this is not enough. Labour providers are finding it more challenging to find the right people and we are seeing the horticulture sector, in particular, contract.

We have another challenge in farming which is an ageing workforce. The average age of a farmer is well into their 50s and not enough new people are entering the industry, partly due to the stigma around long hours and low pay.

There is some exciting work taking place around robotics but full automation in areas such as fruit picking is still years away.

What challenges is the agriculture sector facing? 1

Securing water for food

Food security requires water security. Last year’s drought and record-breaking summer temperatures had serious consequences for agriculture in our region, from lower yields and lower-quality produce to the impact on livestock with heat stress.

In 2022, East Anglia received 21% more than average sunshine and it was the region’s eighth driest year on record.

We can’t control the weather, but we can control our reaction to it. For farmers, this includes reviewing what they grow and when, using water more efficiently and the construction of new on-farm reservoirs.

For regulators, this means giving water for food the priority it deserves and ensuring farmers have the confidence to invest in these large infrastructure projects.

The future of abstraction licences is key. Licences are due to be replaced by permits next year and will be subject to periodic review, likely to be every six years. What if those licence volumes are reduced after the first six years yet the abstractor has undertaken a 25-year investment project?

The NFU is also part of Water Resources East, an organisation bringing together partners from a wide range of industries to find long-term solutions to managing our precious water resources.

What challenges is the agriculture sector facing? 5

Dealing with volatility

Like many other business sectors, volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to our farm businesses, and Britain’s food security. They have seen huge increases in costs, including fertilisers up 169%, energy up 79% and animal feed up 57%. These are costs they cannot pass on.

The consequences include UK egg production falling to its lowest level in nine years and large falls in the production of salad ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers. And the NFU’s survey of livestock producers found that 40% of beef farmers and 36% of sheep farmers were planning to reduce numbers in the next 12 months, with input costs cited overwhelmingly as the main reason.

Farmers and growers must receive the fair return their hard work justifies. They cannot continue to sell below the cost of production, and this needs action from Government and the wider food supply chain. We need a joined-up approach to managing supply chain volatility. This includes providing dedicated support for the energy intensive sectors of agriculture and horticulture.

The Government should also establish a food intelligence unit to highlight the forward risks facing the food sector and to make recommendations to ministers.

Farming in a changing climate

Farmers in East Anglia are in the front line when it comes to the impact of climate change, but also want to be part of the solution.

The NFU has set the ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions(GHG) across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. This is agriculture’s contribution to the UK’s ambition of net zero by 2050.

Currently the industry contributes roughly 10% of the UK’s GHG emissions, but agriculture is almost uniquely placed to play its part, as both emissions source and sink. Alongside producing food, energy and fibre, farmers can reduce the impact of GHG emissions, and protect and enhance the vital carbon reserves already in our soils and vegetation.

Using resources more efficiently and producing renewable energy on farms, are other ways we can support our industry’s net zero journey and drive down costs for farm businesses.

At the same time as reducing our impact on the climate, we should not reduce our capacity to feed UK consumers with high quality, affordable British food. The UK must not achieve its climate change ambitions by exporting UK production, or our greenhouse gas emissions, to other countries.

The net zero goal is a national aspiration, not an expectation that every farm can achieve it. Each farm will start their journey from a different place and methods that work best for some farms will not work for others.

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