CAMPAIGNERS have called for rural affairs to be prioritised amid warnings the contribution which the British countryside makes to the economy is being gravely overlooked.
To coincide with National Countryside Week, The Prince’s Countryside Fund is highlighting the results of a YouGov poll to raise awareness of the importance of the rural economy, and claims the countryside could deliver even greater benefits if investment was prioritised there.
Twenty-eight per cent of those polled underestimated the contribution of rural businesses and industries, and failed to appreciate that they did in fact account for as much as 19 per cent of the overall UK economy.
The fund’s manager, Helen Aldis, said: “Rural affairs are often put to one side until there’s a crisis, like dramatic floods earlier this spring. But once the waters recede, and the crisis is no longer visible, we neglect to examine issues the countryside faces and these issues not only affect those who live in the countryside, they have an impact on everyone who lives in Britain.
“Putting rural affairs on the agenda is key to keeping the countryside in business.”
About 5.5m people are employed in the rural economy and the domestic food and drink industry alone generates £22bn for the UK economy.
But an increasing number of sheep and dairy farmers have abandoned their jobs in recent years due to tight returns for their produce and if the industry is to merely standstill, 60,000 new entrants are needed in the next decade, the fund gas claimed.
However, there is huge potential for agriculture to deliver even greater economic gains for the nation’s economy if Britain’s flagging food self-sufficiency is addressed, Mrs Aldis argued.
Official statistics show that Britain is more reliant on food imports than at any other time over the last 40 years, with self-sufficiency at just 58.9 per cent.
“Self-sufficiency is just one issue the rural economy is facing, but our declining food production for a growing population underscores the fact that we’re not realising the full potential of our countryside and exploring the best use of our greatest natural asset,” Mrs Aldis said.
The National Farmers’ Union has long campaigned for greater commitment from British retailers and the wider food industry to boost self-sufficiency. It wants farmers to be given much more confidence to empower them to invest in their operations and increase production, but this it says can only be achieved through fairer farmgate prices, better on-shelf promotion of British meat and funding for research into agricultural technology.
The NFU’s York-based regional director, Richard Pearson, said: “If we only ate food produced in Britain at the start of January, we would run out on August 7. Last year that date was August 14 so we have regressed a week which is frustrating. We can’t produce everything ourselves - bananas and rice for example - but we can produce 30 per cent of what is being imported which would have a massive impact on our self-sufficiency.
“What we need is joined up thinking between processors, producers and retailers, who must all work together to set up sustainable supply chains to provide the customer with a consistent stream of high quality produce at an affordable price.
“We have lived in peaks and troughs in this industry but if a farmer has a secure product price for the future, they can build a business to supply this kind of produce over the long term.”