by Glyn Roberts, FUW President
2020 WiLL, i have no doubt, go down as a history lesson for future generations and possibly carry the title ‘The year the world won’t forget’.
No-one could have predicted at the start of the year what we were going to face and the untold chaos that was going to unfold politically and economically. As the year comes to an end, i’ve reflected on some of the issues that we have dealt with over the past 12 months.
A big concern for us and the industry was and remains getting the right kind of Brexit. We knew right from the start of the year that following the Conservatives having gained a majority in Parliament on a ‘get Brexit done’ commitment, 2020 would be a very different year to what it might otherwise have been.
Whilst many speculated that an extension of the Withdrawal Period to beyond December 2020 was likely, given the complexity of what needed to be negotiated and the infrastructure, such as new border controls, that should be put in place before the end of the period – such an extension has not materialised and the negotiations are, as i write, on-going. We have, throughout all of this, maintained our long-held view that we must get Brexit done safely, over a realistic timescale that ensures a UK-eU trade deal which delivers full access to eU markets with minimum non- tariff barriers for our Welsh produce.
Our staff and officials have been relentless in lobbying politicians to ensure that our industry isn’t any worse off as a result of new policies and trade deals, making it very clear that the new Agriculture Bill had to at the very minimum ensure food imported to the UK meets UK standards. When the FUW’s warnings were ignored and the newly passed Agriculture Act received Royal Assent, we were clear that this could open the door to devastating impacts on farming and rural communities if the UK Government does not place food security and the wellbeing of farming families and rural communities at the centre of policy development.
Yes, we welcomed the inclusion in the Act of a requirement for a report to be presented to parliament focusing on the impacts future trade deals could have on agriculture. however, this is certainly not the red line preventing substandard food imports that farmers, environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and millions of members of the general public lobbied for.
By the time this paper goes to print there will be less than 5 weeks until the end of the eU withdrawal period and claims by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK
‘will prosper’ without an eU trade deal are a real concern. You cannot cut yourself off from the worlds biggest economy and trading block at the height of a global pandemic, the worst a quarter of a trillion to cope and think it’s going to go well – so i really hope that by the time Y Tir hits your doorsteps that an acceptable UK- eU trade deal has been reached or is on the horizon.
Even if a deal is reached, we are facing significant additional costs and disruption as a result of non-tariff barriers due to the UK’s decision to leave the Single Market and customs union. A no-deal will severely escalate these and must be avoided at all costs.
Of course, when we said that 2020 will be a year like no other, Covid-19 was not what we had imagined. During this crisis our staff and officials have been instrumental in speaking up for the industry, feeding into discussions at Wales and UK levels and highlighting the devastating consequences for some within our sector. At every step of the way we were clear that the rapid impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global supply chains, which saw food shortages in many countries, highlighted the degree to which food security must be considered a priority.
Aside from the physical, psychological and social impacts which are affecting the farming community, just as they are most sections of society, the agricultural industry continues to face a number of specific non- market related challenges as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
These include specific challenges relating to accessing veterinary services, including in relation to meeting statutory obligations such as bovine TB testing while observing social distancing etc.; meeting statutory requirements for example, accommodating farm and livestock inspections; providing information and documents to Welsh Government and responding to Welsh Government queries and marketing Produce.
in order to help mitigate such challenges, FUW staff continue to follow a number of protocols to ensure members are assisted whilst ensuring their health and welfare is protected and human contact avoided, whilst veterinary practices, livestock markets and the Welsh Government continue to implement a number of welcome protocols and changes to ensure businesses can continue to operate while risks are minimised.
examples include changes to TB testing rules, the strict implementation of rules in livestock markets preventing vendors from attending ringside sales, the extension of the submission deadlines for a range of documents and the acceptance of electronic copies of documents by Rural Payments Wales which would normally have to be provided as hard copies.
Notwithstanding this, as we have told a number of Government inquiries, the restrictions placed on civil servants and resultant reduced capacity continues to cause a number of problems for farm businesses for which receiving responses to urgent queries, licences that have been applied for or site visits are time critical.
The FUW has arranged frequent online meetings for members in order to ensure such concerns can be raised and followed up on, and to keep the industry abreast of important developments with regards to the pandemic and other issues.
However, a major obstacle for many farmers wishing to take advantage of concessions, keep up to date with developments and information of direct relevance to their businesses and communicate with others under the
circumstances has been the poor provision of broadband in large areas of Wales. Indeed, the last months have served as a stark example of how vital connectivity is. Our own Union staff, many of whom live in rural areas, have been working from home and we have continued to assist members with digital paperwork for their farm businesses. Without an internet connection this would not have been possible. On that note, I would like to assure members that we will continue to lobby for progress on better connectivity to ensure that going forward no farm business is left behind in the race for better and faster connectivity.
The debate around climate change and the role farming can play to reduce global warming has also kept our team busy over the past year. A point we raised with the UK’s High-Level Climate Action Champion, Nigel Topping, was that as farmers, everything we do revolves around the weather, the seasons and the climate. We cannot afford to gamble on the scientists being wrong and risk seeing impacts of Biblical proportions: Crop failures, famines, the loss of vast areas of farmland and communities to rising seas, mass migrations and war to name just a few.
Like every other industry, we must work hard to mitigate climate change, and we are committed to doing that, but we must do so through innovation and removing obstacles in ways which preserve and enhance the family farm businesses which are the backbone of our rural communities.
Addressing the key findings in the latest ‘Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK’ report by the Committee on Climate change at the start of the year we warned of the dangers of focusing disproportionately on livestock production or inappropriate tree planting.
The report highlighted some critical issues, including the need for a strong UK food production sector and the dangers of delivering UK emissions reductions at the expense of increasing our reliance on food imported from countries with far greater carbon footprints. Agriculture is currently responsible for around 10 per cent of UK emissions, with methane from livestock production making up just over half of this figure. By comparison, transport and energy make up around a half of all UK emissions.
In other words, if we could stop producing food in the UK, and there was no agriculture, 90 per cent of the problem would still be there. Indeed, the Committee recognised that switching away from Welsh and UK produced red meat would increase the nation’s carbon footprint because we have some of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of meat reared anywhere in the world. The FUW therefore welcomed the fact that the Committee had backed its calls for a robust post-Brexit trade policy which reflects the lower carbon footprint of UK produce.
The FUW also responded to the call to increase UK forestry cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent by 2050 pointing out that while FUW members are supportive of appropriate tree planting, it must not undermine farm productivity and the environment, and that members regularly highlight the obstacles they come across when they try to plant trees. Sadly, the latest Glastir Woodland Creation Window rules have brought yet more obstacles into the mix.
It is also important to remember that, within the past century, the area of woodland in Wales increased threefold; from 5 per cent in 1919 to around 15 per cent in 2016, with mainly deciduous farm woodlands making up 30 per cent of the current area.
We continue to highlight the experience over the past century which shows the damage that well-intentioned policies aimed at increasing woodland areas can have. The replacement of land grazed by sheep and cattle with forests has been directly associated by scientists with habitat and species loss in hundreds of examples from around the world, including the UK, so panic-planting must be avoided at all costs.
Moreover, we will continue to stress that using land that currently produces food to merely off-set growths in greenhouse gas emissions in other industries is foolhardy.
And whilst all of those issues are on-going and the team has been relentless in working to ensure that farmers in Wales have a prosperous future to look forward to, the issue of poor mental health in our rural communities has been starkly highlighted. As members know, we made a commitment at the Royal Welsh Show in 2017 to do everything we can to help break the stigma that still prevents farmers from speaking about their mental health and seeking the help they often desperately need and deserve. The figures sadly speak for themselves, with 1 farmer a week in the UK dying by suicide and many more suffering in silence.
As part of our efforts we have run various awareness raising campaigns during the year, our staff have had Mental Health First Aid training through the DPJ Foundation and we held our first ever All Wales Mental Health conference, which explored the wider context of poor
mental health in rural communities and what steps need to be taken by Government, decision makers and policy shapers to address the situation, especially as Covid-19 has put further pressure not just on people’s mental health but also their finances.
Following the event we wrote to Minister for Mental Health, Wellbeing and Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan, to highlight the key findings. We also held a virtual follow-on meeting where we discussed how the combination of Brexit uncertainty, Covid-19 and proposed new farming policies are putting immense pressure on farmers and their mental health – which if left unaddressed could be the perfect storm for our mental health.
As we all know, the problems on farms are plentiful and some can be addressed by talking about them, others however require the Welsh Government to re-evaluate their current and future agricultural policies – future financial farm support, bovine Tb and water quality regulations are just a drop in the ocean. We will therefore continue to work with the Welsh Government to ensure that everything possible is done, so that new and existing agricultural policies do not continue to negatively impact on mental health.
It has not been easy this year but we must count our blessings nonetheless. We are fortunate in so many ways and it’s worth remembering that it’s always the darkest hour before dawn. I hope this upcoming Christmas break gives you time to enjoy a quiet moment to reflect and enjoy some time with the family – even if it looks a
bit different this year.
On a final note, I would like to thank all of our staff and officials for their hard work this year and of course our members. Your support for this Union means that we can continue the fight to ensure there are sustainable, thriving, family farms here in Wales.
A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all!