Farmers must work together to continue to survive 20 years after devastating foot and mouth crisis

Farmers are risking their livelihoods through a reluctance to pool key resources, according to Lord Curry, on the 20th anniversary of the devastating foot and mouth crisis which resulted in his landmark review into agriculture.

The 2001 outbreak, which effectively shut down the countryside, sparked a major change in government policy with a greater emphasis placed on sustainability, environmental concerns and landscape management.

But Labour’s shadow minister for farming Daniel Zeichner said while advances had been made, the public understanding of how food reached their plates was still lacking.

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And although crossbench peer Lord Curry’s Policy Commision on the Future of Farming and Food, which reported in 2002, also identified a need for greater cooperation between small family farms, he fears that two decades on the lesson has still not been learnt.

A visit in 2001 of then Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett with farmer David Beresford (in green), Vets and Officials from the Farm of Mr Beresford near Settle. Photo: John Giles/PA

It is these small family farmers that Labour’s shadow farming minister said he feared for in the post-Brexit arrangements for the industry.

Mr Zeichner, who was a parliamentary candidate in rural Norfolk when the 2001 outbreak hit, said it was a “traumatic time” and he added: “That trauma spread beyond people in the countryside, but it’s amazing how quickly people forget, and that’s a salutary lesson that we’ve got to be on our guard.”

Lord Curry’s review, which reported in 2002, examined the devastating impact of the outbreak.

He said: “When I carried out the review it was obvious that many farmers were unwilling to surrender their independence in order to work together and unfortunately that is still the case.

“However, the economics of agriculture means it no longer makes financial sense to operate in silos and they must learn to see their neighbouring farmers as colleagues rather than competitors.

“The reluctance is understandable. Farms by their very nature are often geographically isolated and for those who are carrying on in the footsteps of older generations their identity is tied up with the land they farm. However, the model just isn’t sustainable.”

Until he retired two years ago, Lord Curry ran a farm in Northumberland and he remembers vividly the devastation brought by foot and mouth.

The first case was confirmed in Essex on February 19 and within weeks it had spread throughout the country. By the time the outbreak ended in the autumn, there had been 2,000 cases resulting in the slaughter of more than six million animals.

Lord Curry added: “Foot and mouth came at the end of a troubled decade for agriculture. The 1990s had brought us BSE, swine fever, e-coli and then just as farmers were dealing with the fall out from EU surpluses they were hit by foot and mouth. It was incredibly challenging and not just for the farmers.

“Overnight the entire rural economy shutdown, but when it did I think it made many people realise the importance of the countryside and it certainly foregrounded many issues that had been rumbling on in the background. The crisis was horrendous, but it was also a catalyst for change.”

And Nigel Pulling, Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society said that change had equipt farmers to be ready for the post-Brexit era.

He said: “There is now greater traceability of produce back to farms and how it is produced, which now gives British producers a great platform for trading worldwide in the post-Brexit era.”

But Mr Zeichner said although many positive steps had been made, he still felt there was a lack of understanding from the public over food production.

“[The 2001 outbreak] brought into the light for me some of the discrepancies between the wider population’s understanding about what farming is, and in some ways many of the issues still seem very salient today,” he said.

He said threats from diseases such a bovine TB, bird flu, and African swine fever were on his radar, and he said: “One of the first questions I asked when given this brief was ‘are we ready? What are the plans?’ and my sense is that we are in a much better place than we were 20 years ago. I hope I’m not being over-optimistic.”

But he added animals were still moved around more than was ideal.

“And as we’ve seen with the current livestock movement consultation, with a lack of local abattoirs, that still creates probably more movements than strictly speaking some would think were necessary,” he said.

And he added that “the wider public have got no idea at all” how food comes to be on their plate.

“There is a woeful lack of transparency within the entire supply chains - not so much on the farming side but through the food processing sector, as we’ve seen with Covid [it’s a sector where] migrant workers work and of course one of the problems that came up was people moving from factory to factory.

“So there are in some ways awful parallels between 20 years ago and now.”

While there was no public enquiry, the crisis, which cost the country more than £8bn, resulted in three government reviews.

Lord Curry added: “At the time agricultural policy had support tied production, which was very outdated even then. It couldn’t have continued but foot and mouth was the watershed moment which forced change.

“Before the crisis just a handful of farms were involved in stewardship schemes, but by the end of the decade the figure had risen to almost 70 per cent and over the last 20 years there has been a realisation that these schemes present a real opportunity for farmers.”

Further changes are on the horizon. Unveiled last year, Environmental Land Management Schemes are the cornerstone of the Government’s new post-Brexit agricultural policy. It will see farmers paid for using their land to deliver environmental benefits and a number of pilot projects have been launched ahead of the full roll out in 2024.

Environment Secretary George Eustice previously said: “Rather than the prescriptive, top down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take. If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead.”

But Mr Zeichner said: “From a farmer’s point of view, there’s actually no guarantee of the support they have had in the past. I know quite a few farmers are anxious about this and I think again it reflects a different kind of farming.

“There will be some, particularly the bigger, better resourced farms, who will be able to alter what they do to fit the new scheme. Others are going to run into a problem because they can start seeing their payments cut from this year - anything between five and in some cases 25 per cent - and it will be largely gone in three or four years.

“We know that significant numbers of farms in different parts of the country rely very heavily on that support, so that then begs the question, what happens to them?”

And he said he feared it “feels pretty tough for anything that looks like the traditional family farm” as “very big, powerful conglomerates” threatened to eclipse the sector.

Lord Curry added: “There is a huge amount of potential here, but success will come from a recognition that policies need to be appropriate to the geographic area and from farmers working together.

“Twenty years ago I believed that the future of farming lay in sharing resources and their own expertise and knowledge. I still believe that now and ever the optimist I am sure that Britain’s farmers will come round to the idea.”