Local food for thought

Friday, 26 October, 2012

Does the Harvest festival matter? Are those who work the land especially important?

These questions could well have been asked as the great and the good crowded into St. Edmundsbury Cathedral for the County Harvest Festival Service.

In an age of mass produced, cheap imported food, why do we still need to celebrate the success of Suffolk farming?

The narrow-mindedness behind that question is a worry to me. It tells me that too many of us are divorced from the sheer hard work of the agricultural life. Working the land is not for the faint-hearted. Unpredictable weather that can wipe out a crop. Antisocial hours. Sometimes isolation and loneliness. Financial insecurity and debt.

Working on the land is not a cushy number. But it is a vocation.

When long service awards were given last week at the Cathedral for those who have spent up to 50 years on Suffolk farms, the total number of years service when added up was one thousand. Yes, that’s right – one thousand years of agricultural service between them, a whole millennium of work on the Suffolk land. They were all proud, self reliant and, I think, well satisfied with the lives they have lived. 

The bread, meat, milk, apple juice and vegetables on our kitchen table don’t get there by accident. They have to be produced by the agricultural industry. Some of it is imported (too much in my view). Imported food is cheaper at the moment. But this will not last as rising fuel costs make transportation costly. Not to mention the environmental impact of transporting food across thousands of miles from abroad.

The recent failed harvests in the U.S, Ukraine and other countries have reduced grain reserves to their lowest levels since 1974. The USA has only 6.5% of the maize that it expects to eat next year in reserve.

A senior economist with the UN said recently "We've not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year".

Global events if repeated will certainly matter to the people of Suffolk. Food shortages are set to cause a price rise for food next year. With households already squeezed due to the recession, we do not need a further rise in the cost of living. One way to ensure that this worrying threat doesn’t continue is to champion food production in the UK – and, of course, in the fertile fields of Suffolk.

 The Government outlined its food plans for the next 20 years (in 2010) and the emphasis was on sustainable, local production. The population increase across the southern hemisphere of the globe means that there is a greater demand for food .In response the UK must produce much more food for itself.

Food security is as important to this country's future wellbeing, and the world's, as energy security. We need to produce more food. We need to do it sustainably. And we must do more to ensure that what we eat safeguards our health.   

We don’t rely upon multi-national companies or heavy industrial manufacturing plants for the majority of our jobs in Suffolk. Though we have seen welcome growth in the county’s IT and logistics sectors, we are still rural in character. 

There are over 2,500 agricultural businesses in Suffolk directly employing over 10,000 people and providing jobs indirectly for thousands more in agricultural machinery and haulage companies. Food processing and preparation is an important part of the Suffolk economy too. Most of the land in Suffolk is arable, producing wheat and barley but there were also over 7 million poultry in Suffolk and over 400,000 pigs before the recession kicked in. Suffolk accounts for 20% of the UK’s total outdoor reared pork.

These figures show how farming is still a significant part of the Suffolk economy.

Seeing the variety of local produce at the Harvest Festival brought to my attention another troubling modern trend: the growth of supermarket chains. The supermarket dominance over the sale of food and hard bargaining tactics has crippled profits for many smaller Suffolk producers. Recently the price of milk has received national media attention as farmers are forced to sell their milk for a price which can put many out of business.  

Of course, in Suffolk there is not a big dairy sector. But the rapacious supermarket chains drive hard bargains with pork and vegetable producers in Suffolk. Milk is just the tip of the iceberg, if you will pardon the horribly mixed metaphor (which I use deliberately, to make the point).

The Harvest Festival season is a time to teach future generations the importance of the local production of food.

With the worldwide population growing and the food supply failing to keep up with this increase, we cannot continue to import the majority of our food cheaply. Nor are the low prices offered for home-grown produce by the supermarkets sustainable.

So Suffolk should remember, during Harvest Festival, all those who work the land. The nation’s security of food supply depends on them. For that reason Harvest Festival is as important now as it ever was.