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2020 will go down in history for many reasons.
It was the year that, for the first time in generations, we have seen empty shelves in our supermarkets as retailers, food manufacturers and farmers struggled to overcome the challenges presented to our supply chain by the global pandemic. England footballer Marcus Rashford told us uncomfortable truths about children in our country going hungry and relying on school meals for food.
It was also the year the UK is left the EU and worked to forge new trade deals for food and farming around the world.
Food. Where it comes from, who has access to it, and how it is produced became mainstream news.
Those empty shelves in our supermarkets served as a stark reminder to us all. Food and its availability is something we have all taken for granted. We have got used to all types of food being available all year round, we have lost touch with seasonality, and despite food being cheaper to buy than it’s ever been, people in this country are going without.
It is why Marcus Rashford took to social media to tell his story and campaign for change. It is why the NFU campaigned to safeguard our food standards and called for our values of production to be protected against imported food that would be illegal to produce here. And more than one million people agreed. Our petition to protect food standards gained this amount of support in just under two weeks, with chefs like Jamie Oliver mobilising his supporters to unite with our campaign. It is one of the largest petitions of all time and underlines the importance we all place on food.
Food is one of the few things that unite us all, regardless of where you live, what job you have or what your political beliefs are. People rightly care deeply about what food they will be putting on the plate for their family. People care about animal welfare standards, they care about environmental protection and they trust in British farmers and retailers to ensure an abundant supply of safe food.
Never has this been more acutely felt than during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which ultimately has changed the way we think and how we buy our food. Lockdown brought monumental challenges across the food supply chain, not least in the entire closure of our food service sector which was hit on an unparalleled level. The £81bn UK eating-out market was closed overnight. From the very start the NFU worked with retailers and food service outlets to help manage the redirection of supply and excessive volumes, helping to get food to where the public needed it most. And we have learned from these very testing of times. Those conversations continue, linking producers closer to the food industry, to enable the supply chain to become more reactive to ever changing demands. We want to continue these close working relationships and make sure that British farmers and growers remain the number one supplier of choice to the UK market.
This means prioritising British procurement into our schools, NHS, government and other public services. By investing in the nation’s food production system, the government can capitalise on the benefits food and farming delivers for the economy, such as our world leading standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety. We need to maximise the opportunity leaving the EU presents us and place British produce at the heart of government sourcing policies and ultimately get more climate-friendly British food on to plates.
We should do this because the British public value British farming’s production standards and care about where their food comes from. We know the vast majority of people (86%) want to buy more British food, based on independent surveys the NFU has commissioned over a number of years.
British food production is already some of the most sustainable in the world – emissions from UK beef production are half that of the global average. British farmers are on the frontline in tackling arguably the greatest environmental challenge facing us all, climate change. But we can and want to do more. In the UK, 65% of land is simply not suitable for growing crops but thanks to our weather we can grow grass. Lots of lush grassland which, thanks to grazing livestock, turns grass we can’t eat into high quality, nutritious meat providing valuable proteins not found elsewhere in our diet.
Farmers are proud to produce world-leading ingredients and climate-friendly food which underpins the British food and farming sector worth more than £100bn to the national economy all the while protecting and enhancing our natural environment. We do this because we have some of the most forward-thinking, productive and innovative farmers working across our sector but we’re not standing still.
The NFU has set an ambition for British farming to reach net-zero by 2040, and our farmers have taken this challenge head-on. Hundreds have already taken a pledge to reach net zero and are taking positive steps to achieve this goal. We have an enormous opportunity for the UK to help lead the green recovery; by focusing on the health of our soil and driving productivity to produce food in smarter ways which bring down our emissions, as well as storing carbon on farmland, and using the latest commercial technology and embracing science and innovation, we can become even more productive and sustainable.
British farmers and growers are ready to play their part in helping to ensure everyone has access to an enjoyable, sustainable and healthy balanced diet, whether that is from our supermarkets, in our schools, or when they sit down to a meal in a restaurant. We should be looking at how we can continually build on what farmers can deliver. Would investment between public and private sectors, and crucially, in our water infrastructure, allow us to better manage one of our most abundant natural resources? Could this mean the ability to grow more fresh fruit and vegetables, or other crops, here in the UK? This will need vision, determination and joined up thinking but the possibilities are endless.
Farming is changing. Our food needs are changing. By backing British farming, we can all be part of the solution. Farmers are ready and able to tackle the challenges ahead; to make the most of new opportunities to improve productivity and animal welfare, to encourage innovation and to realise our ambition to produce more sustainable, climate-friendly food; food that’s available for everyone.