Who will grow your food?

This is the first in a series about food and farming by Sharon Astyk, the original article can found here.

Astyk asks the crucial question; with aging farmers, pressure on land and farming seen as only fit for the village idiots who will grow your food?

The critics, and there are lots of them, say that farmers are responsible for many of the problems in the countryside. They are accused of the systematic destruction of hedgerows, polluting water and ignoring wildlife. While there might be an element of truth in such jibes what is ignored is that the countryside is still the place where food is grown.

Farming has undergone enormous changes in the last 70 years. Food was politicised after the shortages of the 1940s and successive governments wanted to show that things were better under the post-war regimes. That meant continuing the modernisation which started with increasing mechanisation and the greater use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The result was the move to modern factory farming.

Traditionalists lamented the loss of the old agriculture with horse drawn ploughs and hay making on long summer days. The image of a rural idyll is engrained in the collective consciousness and is exploited by many companies especially to sell food.

With increasing urbanisation the vast majority of people have little or no contact with farms or farmers apart from a day out in ‘the country’. People have lost track of where food comes from and who grows it. The role of farmer as food producer has also been obscured by the seemingly endless supplies on over stocked supermarket shelves.

The biggest issue that is being totally ignored is that the average of farmers in the UK is near 60 and few young people want to take up agriculture as a career. Why should they when farmers are at best ignored and at worst reviled? Why should anybody go into a job that can often involve long hours outside in all weathers for so little financial return and even less recognition?

As farmers retire skills are lost and our ability to feed ourselves is diminished. Sharon Astyk says that it will take time to train new farmers and far from being low status manual work it is a skilled profession that deserves a higher status.

The article goes on to calculate how many people will be needed to continue farming America. What bothers me is that the whole situation is not taken seriously enough in the US or the UK. We still rely on farmers to feed us whatever we think of current agricultural practices and however we see the countryside. It is no use looking to mythical scientific fixes to magic food out of nowhere. Neither will all the urban food growing projects feed the population. I am not arguing against any sort of sustainable initiative to increase food production but I am saying that agriculture has to be the main source of food.

What we need is the maximum utilisation of the land we have and the farmers to produce the food. Farming needs to be taken seriously and the job made more attractive, that is, we have to value farmers as crucial to our wellbeing.

In an election year farming and food security should be central issues in any political manifesto. My bet is they will hardly feature and when they do there will be just more of the same old rhetoric of the past; lots of words but no real action.

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