Farm workers for food security

Photo by Denes Kozma on Unsplash

We see enough coverage on the alarming rates people are leaving the NHS but another concern is our country’s food security. Everyone needs food to survive, yet we as a country actively decrease our food security by not taking food production seriously – whether through trade deals which outcompete our own farmers, rewilding and carbon offsetting taking key agricultural land away from food production, or a lack of support for a crucial workforce.

In a recent survey by City and Guilds, only 22 percent of working Brits said they’d consider a job in farming, and this is down to three factors: poor pay, accessibility and public opinion.

Farm workers underpaid and under-respected

The average farm worker earns £9-10 an hour. Why would someone want to work in all weathers and travel far to get to work, when they could work in an easily accessible office for more money? Throughout the pandemic, we noted the activities of key workers in health, in social care, in shops and food supply. Yet many who work in these sectors are still underpaid and under-respected, especially with regard to farm work.

The majority of people who live in big towns and cities are disconnected from the farming industry, with schools not even mentioning farming as a career. With a lack of public transport in rural areas and next to no mention of food production in schools, we’ve raised a generation of people who cannot access or are simply unaware of the farming industry.

I would hedge a bet that most people when challenged on the roles available in the farming industry would name a farmer and farm vet, unaware of the range of roles available such as agronomists, conservationists, soil scientists, butchers, abattoir workers, mechanics, sales, land managers, logistics, supply chain, policy advisers.

Crucially important jobs

We relied heavily on EU workers as farm vets, butchers, abattoir workers and seasonal pickers. Now that we have left the EU, we need to bring back public acceptance of working in these tough but crucially important roles, to keep the industry going self-sufficiently.

There seems to be a stigma associated with farming as dirty, or for the uneducated and the migrants. All things I’ve heard many times before: even my own relatives joked asking if I was giving my brain a rest when I gave up my full time job to help farm.

To protect our food security we need to move towards a nature-friendly system to see prolonged production of food in a non-damaging way, and sufficient job retention. Although not the only suggestion I would make, a key factor is the extent of our intensive farms. We need to decrease the intensity of our factory farms in the UK which jumped 7 percent between 2017 and 2020. That’s over a thousand intensive bird farms and over 200 pig units.

High job turnover within factory farming

These units have an extremely high turnover of jobs due to the cruelty factor. Not only are these systems giving negative images and experiences, but they also impact the environment hugely by being reliant on feed and creating large amounts of waste, polluting waterways and driving antibiotic use. Admittedly, these sorts of changes are driven by consumer demand and trade deals, so we need to see a shift away from too much chicken and pork in our diets and instead include more pulses, lamb and beef (in moderation).

We can purchase pasture-fed and outdoor-reared meat directly from local farms, as more and more farmers invest in setting up their own online stores, meat and vegetable box schemes and local farm stores. When shopping in supermarkets, one can look for the British flag, organic and pastured fed labels which, are more expensive, but will have a better environmentally friendly practice than imports and factory reared meat.

It’s important to note that in the UK we already have some of the world’s leading standards in food production, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement and growth. Changing our diet to a more nature-friendly system would gain public acceptance.

What comes with this is more Brits wanting to work in the sector, better job satisfaction in the nature-friendly farms and the public paying more for healthy foods. This in the long run should result in farm businesses surviving the post-Brexit trade deal turmoil, with increased pay making the industry more viable to support families working in the British farming industry.

Government support for farms

It is also important that government policy supports British farms in a nature-friendly subsidy system and allows British produce to be supported and affordable – as well as protecting consumers from cheap imports of meat produced through low welfare with high environmental impact practices. These changes don’t happen overnight and they most definitely do not happen without changes in how the public perceives the buying and eating of meat.

The onus is not all on the consumer. The farming industry is pushing their end to get more farmers involved in the process of educating the public about environmentally friendly farming. In the past, only higher tier applicants in the countryside stewardship could access funding to host educational school visits: this has now been opened up to mid tier applicants, boosting the availability of farmers to the public.

Alongside this, more platforms such as farmer time are becoming popular amongst schools and farmers. Also through organisations such as Just Farmers the press can now link up with actual farmers rather than union representatives.

A productive food system

Bringing food production back into education, driving purchase choice in store and support in government, will help us develop a nature-friendly but productive food system, giving us food security for years to come.