The COVID-19 pandemic has built new barriers to business, travel, and even family gatherings. Never in living history has society been so shut down. Fortunately food trade has continued amazingly undisrupted through adaptive commercial trade.
Farmers like me continue to produce the food that we all need, the seasons and work goes on and I count myself fortunate when so many other working sectors have been badly affected. The food chain has had to adapt but fortunately we don’t have to count a food crisis among the COVID-19 problems. Sadly for many, access to food remains their biggest problem in life.
We’ve seen many astonishing examples of human ingenuity, from the rapid development of vaccines to near-instant spread of new communications technologies such as Zoom. On February 4, for example, I’m moderating a webinar for the Global Farmer Network with three other farmers from different parts on the world. We are looking forward to having a conversation about the farming we are carrying out, the way we use technology and the importance of free-flowing trade.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought that an online forum such as this would be possible, let alone desirable. I enjoy meeting my fellow farmers in the fields, at the shows, sales and meetings. We’re instinctively physical people. And you don’t have to be a farmer to know the frustration of suffering through yet another virtual conference.
Yet we’ve come to rely on these tools—and I’ve gained a special appreciation for how my connections with farmers in far-away places can improve my work here in the UK, as we think about similar problems and come up with creative solutions. For me, Twitter is not just a doomscrolling distraction, but a toolkit of real-time ideas, presented by the Global Farmer Network and a handful of other accounts. So many positive farmers reaching out to wider audiences offering solutions not complaints.
Free trade in food works in a similar way, as farmers in various places grow the best crops suited to their unique environments and seasons—and then exchange them in an international market that ensures access and affordability. This is what allows market and grocery-store shoppers to have a wide array of choices at reasonable prices. Every morning I drink orange juice and appreciate the food system that allows me this choice at an affordable price through the year.
Farming can thrive in this trading arrangement. With each farmer playing to their own production strengths, they must be nimble as they respond to global trends. The export supply in Argentina and Russia influences the wheat that I grow in the north of England. The price of oilseed rape—another of my crops—rises on the back of both soybeans and palm oil.
Brexit has required me to monitor everything, including the farm inputs that come to me from abroad, often on a just-in-time basis. It’s not just about the impact of tariff barriers but the cost and restriction that comes through non-tariff barriers to trade.
The best trade is based on sound science—in other words, regulations that guarantee the safety and health of food but don’t block its availability or make it costly. I’ve seen at first hand anti-scientific prejudices distort our food supply, especially when we deny farmers the tools that can potentially help us grow crops more sustainably. I’m forced to compete against farmers in North and South America who can take advantage of new breeding technologies that regulators in the EU wouldn’t allow. I’m hoping that Brexit allows us to move to a more science based approach with a global perspective.
For example, in the UK we used to have an exportable surplus of oilseed rape (canola). We are now denied both products and genetic solutions that would help us deal with an insect pest. With policy not based on science, the result is that many farmers in the UK have lost the ability to grow a profitable break crop supporting crop rotation. While at the same time importing canola that benefits from those science-based solutions.
It makes no sense. Policy has to be equal. Trade has to be equal. Particularly as a major importer of food, it’s critical to food supply and security.
New genetic technology has been welcomed, with the incredible speed of vaccine development. The crisis of COVID-19 would be worse than it already is if we had not had this technology adopted and accepted in its use. The same technologies that have produced amazing genetic advances in agriculture, are now supplying us with the vaccine that will allow us to manage COVID-19 on a global basis. They are the key to opening up our lives and re-building our economies.
Farmers and plant breeders need global access to this technology today in order to meet the challenges of the future. We want crops that improve performance by making the most of sun and management of water. As partners at the front of the fight of climate change, farmers and agriculture are part of the solution as we strive to produce crops with resilience, sustainability, and carbon awareness. It’s a pretty big ask but, climate change is global and the next generation of farmers seem up for it, they’ve every right to question why we were so slow.
Science delivers and supports the steps forward we need to take—and free-flowing trade based on sound science will allow their use responsibly, for the benefit of all.
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