As we kick off another Party Conference season, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats are saying about the state of the rural economy. While there’s some common ground, such as recognising the value of farmers for both food production and environmental management, each party has its unique priorities. This lack of policy certainty can hinder farmers’ decision-making processes.
The recent pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have revealed how vulnerable our supply chains are to global events. We find ourselves in an era of deglobalisation, where local supply and logistics are crucial for survival and prosperity. Our over-reliance on food imports is a strategic vulnerability we can no longer afford.
Ensuring food security should be a top priority. Political parties should consider legislating for the UK to become a net exporter of food within a decade. Sir James Dyson aptly pointed out that this is achievable, especially if we concentrate on modern methods of cultivating fruits and vegetables.
This leads us to a critical enabler of this transformation: digital connectivity. It’s the linchpin for modernising the farming sector and the rural economy. Richard Benyon stressed this at the recent Rural Economy Research Group meeting, emphasising that connecting rural communities is essential for their sustainability.
If previous agricultural revolutions gave us the plough and the potato, this fourth revolution brings drones and Big Data into the mix. Farmers now employ drones to map fields, self-steering tractors, and data analytics to optimise nutrient delivery to crops.
Returning to the original question, what are the major parties prioritising?
The Liberal Democrats, intriguingly, released a policy ahead of their conference, which includes continuing the Environmental Land Management Scheme and proposing an additional £1 billion per year in funding.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to promise business as usual.
What remains interesting is what the Labour Party will offer. With a new DEFRA front-bench team led by Steve Reed, Labour will need to reassure farmers that they intend to promote food production and innovation while safeguarding the environment.
In all honesty, there are numerous commendable ideas, but sometimes ideology obstructs progress. Consistency and policy certainty are key for achieving sustainable food production and ensuring sufficient food security.
Perhaps the best way forward is a cross-party, long-term food strategy for the UK. We eagerly await the forthcoming statements from both the Tories and Labour in the weeks to come.