Independent agricultural economist Sean Rickard is urging the farming industry to lobby government for a British food production campaign.
Dr Rickard, a former chief economist at the NFU, told Farmers Weekly that news of Russian forces entering Ukraine should set alarm bells ringing at Defra and the UK government, and remind them of the pressing need to expand domestic food production.
“I would like to see a food production strategy as currently, we don’t have one,” he said. “Henry Dimbleby produced what I would call a ‘food nutrition, or a social food strategy’. It had nothing to do with production.
“A successful expanding food industry is at risk and we need to change direction and change it radically.”
Dr Rickard said the government realised that the future of the UK car industry was electric and it needed to encourage the production of batteries or other components for electric vehicles. But there was no comparable strategy for agriculture.
“The government talks gaily about the fourth industrial revolution – the combination of engineering, information technology and biotechnology – as being the future for this country,” he added.
“But the one industry where the fourth industrial revolution should be applied and where the government should be behind it, in helping it to produce more food and therefore to compete more successfully on world markets, is agriculture.
“But this just doesn’t figure in the government’s thinking.”
Dr Rickard said Michael Gove, when he was Defra secretary, promised farmers lots of money to deliver for the environment, but the payment rates were still not ready after four years.
And out of 84 pages of the Agriculture Act, there was barely any core page that said anything about domestic food production, Dr Rickard said.
“We got stupid phrases, such as ‘farmers must receive fair prices, etc’. But there was nothing about getting behind the technology, the know-how and the collaborations that are really going to be necessary to boost the food chain.
“It’s a great industry, if only the government would get behind it. But I believe the government decided long ago that agriculture must be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit.
“The great difficulty is to get the government to change direction. They more of less have to say, ‘Well, of course, we were wrong on Brexit’. And they’re not going to say that.”
Dr Rickard said the UK government should have followed the example of The Netherlands, which is the world’s second-largest food exporter.
“The irony is, we should have been doing this years ago. We should have been following the Dutch,” he added.
“We blame Europe for everything in this country. The truth is, we have had the wrong attitude towards farming for years.”
Dr Rickard said people could argue about any benefits from Brexit, but he predicted the one industry that would bear the cost of it would be agriculture.
“We’ve seen it with [the trade deal with] Australia. It’s going to deliver practically no benefit to our economy at all. Yet, it’s going to hit agriculture. It’s coming with New Zealand.
“The same thing will happen one day with America, Brazil and Argentina. This is going to hit UK agriculture very hard.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “Successful and profitable agricultural production is crucial to our food security, and we are clear that we want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British.
“Our Agricultural Transition Plan will foster change and innovation bringing benefits for farm productivity, food security, public health, animal health and welfare, the environment and trade.
“Our new policies will support the choices that individual farmers make, with the freedom to choose which elements work for them. It is a chance to level-up opportunities for farmers across England and we will continue to support them every step of the way.”