Agriculture is the foundation of large-scale societies. Everything we take for granted would not be possible without farming. It is not a stretch to say that farmers built civilization.
But now, farmers are in trouble.
Despite the UK having one of the best climates in the world for farming, we only produce about 54% of our food and this figure seems to decrease year-on-year. Despite the importance of agriculture, it is a tough industry which is being made all the more difficult by Brexit and climate change. These factors are contributing to a spiraling mental health crisis across the sector.
The Difficulties Of The Job
The average farm generates £46k a year. This may not seem like a bad income at first glance; but it’s worth remembering rgar this is an average and many earn considerably less than this. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this money is not profit or salary, but is what the business makes in total with most of that being paid out in insurances, feed for livestock, upkeep of machinery and other expenses.
Many farmers I know, my parents included, have second full-time jobs so working more than 100 hours a week is not uncommon.
Even though the cost of food has risen a lot in recent months, it is the supermarkets that are getting all the extra money contributing to their record profits. Farmers are not receiving extra pay but still have to struggle with increases in prices of fuel, fertiliser and animal feeds.
Farming is also an incredibly dangerous job with the agricultural worker fatal injury rate being 21 times higher than the average five-year annual rate across all industries. They are working with large animals, machinery, and hazardous chemicals whilst sleep deprived on tight time constants. There are also risks with exposure to the effects of bad weather, noise and dust (there is even a disease called farmer’s lung).
Impact of Brexit
There is a misconception that all farmers voted for Brexit and this simply isn’t true.
West Country Voices citing a poll that suggest 53% voted for Brexit. But given that farmers are predominantly male, rural, and older than 50 (one third are over 65), farmers appear to have voted leave in a smaller proportion than others in their demographic.
The Leave campaign promised less bureaucracy, increased financial assistance and reduced competition from abroad. However, these were lies.
Farmers are now facing more bureaucracy to add to an already massive workload because the UK government decided to increase red tape to make it harder to sell goods to the EU (Europe was happy with the previous arrangement).
Finally, the post-Brexit trade deals mean farmers have to start competing with cheap hormone-ridden low-quality produce from Australia whilst still having to meet the UK’s high standards. These post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand will negatively affect British farmers by undercutting British producers and lowering animal welfare standards.
Anthropogenic climate change is having major impacts on global food production and the UK is not immune to this existential threat. The UK government rightly recognises that climate change and soil degradation is the biggest risk to the UK’s domestic food production. For example, due to weather patterns linked to climate change, wheat yields in 2018 were 7% below the 2016 to 2020 average, and 17% down in 2020.
Farmers play a vital role in protecting the environment. Most farmers recognise the impacts of climate change and want to pursue more sustainable farming practices. A survey of farmers in England shows that most farmers recognise the need for the environment and animal welfare to be prioritised in future government policy. Farmers acknowledge the key link between a thriving natural world and successful farming with 80% believing that the health of the natural environment is vital for their business.
However, government environmental policy is contradictory. On one hand they are introducing sustainability schemes and encouraging more environmentally-conscious practices but have also reduced environmental protections and have relegalised environmentally hazardous pesticides.
As a side note, despite beef production being demonised by some in the media, grass-fed beef reduces greenhouse gas emissions when carbon sequestration and carbon storage of grassland pastures are considered. Though it is worth remembering that intensive beef production is still bad for the environment.
Mental health crisis
With all these issues it is no surprise that farmers are facing a mental health crisis. A recent study by the Farm Safety Foundation found that 92% of farmers under 40 have poor mental health and 36% of farmers admit to having depression, resulting in agriculture having the highest rates of depression and suicide of any industry in the UK.
The public have a somewhat rose-tinted view of farming with most depictions in the media revolving around cute-baby animals on a fresh spring morning. Although there are days which are idyllic the reality is that the hours are long, the pay is bad, the debts are terrifying, and there is a surprising amount of paperwork for pretty much everything.
A study by the University of Exeter found that farmers felt there was a disconnect between farmers and wider society and a lot of this can be explained by a lack of understanding by the public. This feeling of disconnect also contributes to feelings of loneliness.
Farmers make up a mere 1% of the British work force but provide over half of our food. This percentage needs to be increased but it will require help from the government or we may face a food supply crisis.
The farm subsidy system needs major reform to prevent bankruptcy and increase the amount of food we produce domestically without impacting consumers – perhaps legislation should be introduced to insure British farmers receive a fair price for their products by supermarkets. The war in Ukraine and the resulting food shortages in Africa have highlighted the importance of domestic food security.
On the positive side, there are more work schemes for young people and now students can do a GCSE in Agriculture (but few schools offer this) which should inspire a few youngsters to go into the industry. The government is also changing farming policy by phasing out subsidies and are implementing a new Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme and one-off grants. Only time will tell if these new policies would help or hinder our oldest and most important industry.