“Government should ignore treasury advice and look at the wider picture for farmers,” says farming correspondent

Ann-Marie Hamilton's family farm at Hail Weston

Ann-Marie Hamilton's family farm at Hail Weston - Credit: Archant

Farming in the fields with Anne-Marie Hamilton, of Wood Farm, in Hail Weston.

So according to a leaked email from treasury adviser Tim Leunig, the food sector is not critically important to the economy and we should follow the example of Singapore 'which is rich without having its own agricultural sector'.

In a week where we have seen the escalation of Coronavirus, with financial markets crashing amidst fears of potentially devastating problems for factories, businesses and services, the current situation suggests Mr Leunig is woefully out of touch with real life.

For years, successive governments have been enslaved by the mantra of 'cheap food'. I have lost count of how many times I have heard it trotted out by various ministers over the years, and sighed with frustration at their lack of knowledge of history, never mind their total inability to understand cause and effect, should such ideas be put into action.

Whenever a government allows cheap food imports to destroy the market for home produced food, it runs in to trouble. You only have to look at what happened in the First World War when home food production had been allowed to drop significantly. Supplies ran short and riots ensued.

Sadly, lessons were not learnt, and we found ourselves in a similar situation at the start of the Second World War. Shipping became disrupted, the nation was urgently exhorted to 'Dig for Victory', and the farming industry (and the Women's Land Army) came in to their own.

I find Mr Leunig's views particularly unpalatable at the moment as he gives the impression that it is perfectly acceptable to import cheap food which, because labour costs are also cheap, is likely to come from third world countries.

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Not only do I find it distasteful that to do so would be to take food from the mouths of the citizens of those countries who often exist on a fine line between 'food and famine', but his advice also appears indirectly to be condoning the destruction of rainforests, which are not only essential to help combat climate change, but also provide valuable habitats for some of the rarest animals on earth.

With the United Kingdom about to host a world conference to try and combat the effects of climate change, these views are massively embarrassing - and that is even before we mention the 'food miles' created by having to fly or ship imported food in to this country.

Mr Leunig has also omitted to look at the impact that unfarmed land would have on the tourist industry. Large areas of scrubland are unlikely to be a massive attraction to visitors to the countryside, whether 'home grown', or from abroad.

Decimation of the tourist industry would be devastating to our economy. We are already feeling the impact of less travel caused by the Coronavirus, but hopefully, that will be a short-term situation, whereas if you drive farmers off the land, they won't come back, and the knowledge that they have gleaned over centuries of how to grow quality food and care for the countryside properly, will be lost.

The lesson that all governments need to learn is that good, safe food is not cheap, but it is affordable. The agricultural and food industries in the United Kingdom have poured millions of pounds into being able to trace all food that is produced in this country 'from farm to fork' and, as a nation, we have learned to expect that the food we buy is safe to eat. Any food supplier who transgresses will be exposed, and feel the full force of the law.

At a time of crisis, being able to feed ourselves is essential. Make no mistake, food insecurity creates anarchy, whereas being able to keep the nation fed, maintains stability. We are already seeing flights cut as the Coronavirus discourages people from travelling, and what many people probably do not realise is that the planes that carry you on your holiday, also cart as much freight again in their holds, in the form of food from abroad.

So, I suggest that the government ignore the treasury adviser and look at the wider picture. We all need farmers - and probably sooner than you think.