Julian Sturdy is MP for York Outer.
Our food security has never been more critical. With Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, rising energy prices, and global extreme weather events, the ability to produce more food at home is of the upmost importance.
And, following our departure from the European Union and our desire to once more be a world-leading trading nation, so too is ensuring that our farmers can compete on the global market and can realise the opportunities that new trade deals can bring must be high on the agenda for the new Government.
Furthermore, our ability to set our own agricultural policy framework once more provides us with the very real opportunity to turbo-charge British agriculture – to realise the amazing potential of our farmers to not only feed the nation, but also to act as custodians of our beautiful landscape, playing their role in improving biodiversity and working towards a low-carbon future.
The publication this week of the Social Market Foundation’s (SMF) new report, Moovin’ On Up, is a welcome addition to the debate.
As it rightly points out, productivity in British agriculture has stalled in recent years. This is not a universal problem, and there are success stories such as the soft fruit sector, but livestock farmers – particularly the bottom half of farms – have seen very little productivity growth in the last 30 years. Many cattle and sheep farms have to run their agricultural enterprise at a loss, and are sustained by subsidies and non-farm income.
Decades of EU funding mechanisms, and centralised policymaking with multiple objectives for farmers, have left us lagging behind. It is essential that DEFRA now provide both the opportunities to unlock growth and the certainty and stability that is needed for long-term investment decisions.
I was delighted that Ranil Jayawardena, our new Secretary of State, made clear at our party conference that DEFRA is now a “Department for growth”. His recent visit to the Netherlands to learn about their cutting-edge horticulture industry and the role that modern technology is playing in that is welcome indeed. But, we also need to be looking at how we can improve productivity in our domestic livestock industry.
The SMF’s new report shows how ‘precision farming’ tools, such as electronic ID tags, smart weighing systems, monitoring collars, and farm management apps, could help close the agricultural productivity gap between the UK and countries like the Netherlands, Australia, and the US.
Our farmers are looking to Government to enable investment in new technologies and methods. Those already using new technologies enjoy improved labour productivity, farm safety and animal health, productivity, and welfare, just as academic evidence would lead us to expect. This is especially true in younger farmers, or indeed those looking to the next generation to take over family farms.
Yet currently, only nine per cent of government grants in England are earmarked for productivity-enhancing activities.
If DEFRA is to become the growth department that Jayawardena wants it to be, then it is essential this changes. Reforms to our funding system for agriculture must help to boost productivity, and encouraging the uptake of ‘precision farming’ tools will be central to this. Adoption of precision methods has been linked to productivity gains in other countries (notably Australia), and is endorsed by the OECD.
I welcome SMF’s new report and strongly believe its findings can help us to deliver a farming and agricultural policy framework that sets UK farming up for the future. Encouraging the uptake of new technology and precision methods will not only help to boost agricultural productivity, but also has direct benefits for animal health and the environment.
If DEFRA is to truly become a growth department and we are to support our farmers into the future, then our funding mechanisms and policy directions need to be focused on supporting productivity and enabling investment in new technologies.