Farmers cannot be green if they are in the red.

My May piece for the Henley Standard which came out the day after the local elections were held.

It seems food and farming are always in the news at the moment. Consumer inflation for the last period of analysis was 7% whilst inflation in agricultural inputs is just over 24%, pushed up by increases in fuel, fertiliser and animal feed. On the flip side, commodity prices such as wheat are making record increases. However, the amount farmers are paid is still not sufficient to cover just the rise in fertiliser costs on its own. Last March, nitrogen fertiliser was £260 per tonne, this year it was £1000/t. Energy prices, in particular gas used in the manufacturing process, started the price rises and world events have exasperated it.  The price of grain on the other hand, has only gone up by about £100/t. Most farmers will have already sold their grain from last year at much lower prices.

Harvest 2022, just a few months away, is going to see possible shortages in home grown produce as farmers cut back on expensive fertiliser and glasshouse producers have stopped production as heating is too costly. I know of potato producers who are not planting this year due to high fertiliser prices.  They are not prepared to make a loss. Meanwhile, growers of other crops are reducing fertiliser rates which in turn will lower yields. The lack of foreign labour to harvest and process some crops is also having an impact, as British workers have shown in the pandemic they are not interested in picking fruit and vegetables. In an effort to keep prices down and profits up the supermarkets will try to source cheaper food from imports. These are often produced to much lower standards than in the UK, using methods and pesticides that are banned here.

‘We should go organic’ is often thrown at us when talking about fertiliser. Looking at the world cereal market and why prices have risen might help to explain why this just does not stack up. The UK is one of the most efficient grain producers in the world thanks to it’s maritime climate and access to technology. We are however only producing a fraction of the global wheat crop. The appalling situation in Ukraine is partly responsible for the increase in the price of grain. They are estimated to produce 11% of the world’s wheat with Russia’s contribution taking it up to nearly 30%. Ukraine also produces 17% of the world’s maize and sunflowers which are used to produce vegetable oils, hence the short supply of cooking oils. India has production issues this year and there is a drought in the USA. Europe has plentiful supplies of wheat, so it is more a case of the grain not being in the right place. There will be areas in the world already suffering from lack of food so their plight will only worsen. We have food banks in the UK that cannot cope with the numbers and it will be worse next year when home production is scaled back due to high costs and government policy. If we go organic yields could be cut by up to 50%, so we cannot hope to feed a growing world population. Is it morally right that to satisfy a green agenda in the wealthy west that we condemn others to death by starvation? Should we in this country have policies to help large companies with their green washing and turn our efficient farmers into park keepers? No, we need better policies, farmers cannot be green if they are in the red. There is a place for both food production and environmental gain and it seems our government hasn’t thought this through. Which brings me to the ridiculous suggestion by the secretary of state for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, that we can use manure as a substitute for manufactured fertiliser. There is not enough to go around and what is currently produced is already being used to replace fertiliser and improve soils. It is far too bulky to move any distance and compared with fertiliser from a bag is much less concentrated and requires special storage and application machinery. We would need to produce tens of millions of tonnes more to replace the manufactured fertiliser and all at a time when we are being encouraged to eat less meat. Oh, the irony of it!

It’s not surprising then that in a recent rural poll the support for the Conservatives has seen a large fall. I don’t image they will be partying in Downing Street when the local election results start coming in today.

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