There's no doubt that food production is an essential business – and as we tentatively emerge out of the other side of the coronavirus crisis, there's no doubt that the effects of the pandemic are going to have a significant effect on agricultural jobs and government policy.
Government ministers are already acknowledging that the crisis has shown the nation how delicate the food supply chain is. For instance, the initial wave of panic buying demonstrated the importance of robust domestic agriculture infrastructure, not to mention the slowdown of food imports from continental Europe.
Certainly, government policy on agriculture and rural life needs close examination, but thankfully, decision-makers seem to be kicking into action relatively fast. Here, we explore what the future might hold for British farmers.
Looking towards an uncertain future
Although it's early to start talking about policy beyond the ongoing crisis, it's becoming increasingly clear that the government needs to invest in food production. Farming and agricultural jobs are the foundations of food security and we need to produce nutritious, delicious produce for the nation. With the fear and uncertainty brought by COVID-19, this resonates through population more than ever.
Moreover, the pandemic has thrown the fragility of the global supply chain into the spotlight. Coming out of the crisis, it's absolutely essential that British farms are properly aided in their recovery. The pandemic has put enormous pressure on the agricultural workforce, while farmers have had to navigate a labyrinth of changes in demand patterns.
This is an increasingly pressing issue as Brexit negotiations continue. Looking to the not-so-distant future, it seems like the UK's domestic farming sector can expect more investment – especially as the government appears to be ruling out a return to austerity. Although there are certainly challenges ahead, perhaps British farmers can tentatively hope for some extra investment.
The importance of agricultural jobs
The crisis has also highlighted the importance of agricultural jobs. This is something that's becoming particularly evident as we move towards the fruit picking season, where a lack of the usual foreign workforce is threatening the harvest. However, the government is making moves to fill this void; in discussion with the farmers' union, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/16/farmers-union-optimistic-uk-workers-will-rescue-the-harvest-covid-19">they've chartered special emergency flights for fruit pickers from across Europe.</a>
However, in an unusual twist, many British workers are stepping up to the plate to help struggling fruit farmers. According to the NFU, they've seen a swell of interest in agricultural jobs from domestic workers, with many looking to top up their income during lockdown through work that's vital to the wider community. <a href="https://www.farminguk.com/news/-record-demand-for-uk-farm-jobs-due-to-covid-19_55399.html">According to recruitment website Totaljobs,</a> they've seen an incredible 83% spike in searches like 'fruit picker' and 'farm worker'.
Lobbying retailers and campaigning for local produce
Government officials are also beginning to go into talks with the big supermarkets to come to the aid of British farmers. Primarily, they're taking steps to ensure agricultural businesses are paid promptly in full. This is because many farmers and processors have fewer workers and are finding it tricky to maintain normal production, meanwhile, their overheads have remained the same.
To combat this issue, the government are urging supermarkets to pay in cash on delivery due to the pressure on the supply chain – and this seems only fair enough, considering that supermarket profits have skyrocketed amidst the panic buying and stockpiling that happened at the beginning of the crisis. Subsequently, the big retailers have to adopt a set of best practices.
Furthermore, government policy has a part to play in encouraging consumers to support UK farms and buy British. Considering the huge and unexpected dip in the export market, many farmers have suddenly lost one of their key income streams. Therefore, both supermarkets and consumers need to be encouraged to support domestic farmers. Furthermore, this dent in the export market could be sustained depending on the outcome of the UK's Brexit negotiations.
Knock on effects from hospitality
As restaurants, bars, and fast food outlets remain closed, many farmers have lost another of their key markets. This flags up the wider economic impact of the closure of hospitality venues, as the farmers that supply most of these establishments have lost important customers.
Even the cancellation of one key event can have a substantial impact on farmers. For instance, the cancellation of the Wimbledon tennis tournament means that one strawberry farmer in Kent is set to find themselves stuck with an incredible 33 tonnes of perishable soft fruit with no one to sell them to. Equally, the closure of more niche or small-scale events like farmers' markets has also had an impact on farmers' income streams.
In response to this gap, the government are actively encouraging supermarkets to create promotions on British produce, especially beef, lamb, and pork. According to recent reports, these suggestions have been met with little resistance from big retailers.
However, they're urging caution against any profiteering. Certainly, the supermarkets have been given lots of leeway to meet new levels of demand – including more flexible delivery times and the relaxing of laws around lorry driver shifts – so it's essential that big retailers pass these benefits on to their suppliers.
Supporting rural communities
It's been widely acknowledged that the current situation is making life difficult for rural communities in lots of different ways – and not only from a business perspective. For example, there are concerns about child safety on farms as the debate about whether or not schools should reopen rages on. However, the government is working closely with charities to try and lead targetted support for rural communities.
If one thing's certain, the government needs to invest in farms, agricultural jobs, and rural life in the wake of the crisis. COVID-19 has caused a substantial economic shock for British farmers, harshly demonstrating the interconnected and co-dependent nature of our economy. Domestic agricultural needs substantial investment and more people should be encouraged into farming jobs.
Thankfully, these early noises are looking promising. Producing safe, healthy, tasty food is vital to our communities and the government is beginning to recognise the crucial role that our farms play in the nation's economic and physical health.
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