Farmer James Rebanks challeges the new goverment to establish a clear vision for agriculture, nature and food supply chain

Farmer and author James Rebanks has been long outspoken about the plight facing the British farmer, and our dysfunctional relationship with our land. Since Brexit, the Conservative government repeatedly failed to provide any meaningful financial support for farmers, and was generally seen as turning their backs on their core rural voter base. This was reflected in the general election, with these historic Tory seats turning red or orange. Now many farmers, Rebanks included, are asking our new Labour government: will things now change?

Labour’s manifesto was noticeably light on farming policy, despite Starmer promising a ‘New Deal for Farming’. He declined an offer to attend the National Farmers Union (NFU) conference earlier this year, choosing instead to sit back and watch Sunak dig his own grave. Since their landslide victory, farmers across the UK are watching our new government closely, and are cautiously optimistic for what this new future will bring.

James Rebanks addressed these concerns for what a new Labour government means for British farming, in an article on UnHerd: Can Farmers Trust Keir Starmer? In it, he discusses food security, regulation, policy, and trust in government bodies. He challenges Labour to provide a bold new vision for the future of British farmer, to deliver on Starmer’s promise of a New Deal, and to bring reform.

A big focus of the article is the fact that we as a nation need to be self-reliant with our food production, considering both the volatile global political landscape, and the future of scarcity we’re barrelling towards. This means local food and accessible production, removing the need to rely on international supermarket chains or governing bodies. He calls for a basic human right in modern Britain – that no one need go hungry, adding that this will remove strain from the already crumbling NHS.

Rebanks uses the image of the consumer as a mum, juggling her career and parenting, exhausted and broke, to address the inherent flaw in small government, fend-for-yourself economics. He believes that the consumer is not always able to make the perfect nutritional or environmental decisions when buying food, and that government, retailers, farmers, and environmentalists must work together to legislate on their behalf.

He calls for tougher regulation to support farmers in their dealing with supermarkets, to protect them from the often-exploitative nature of these relationships. He believes a Groceries Code Adjudicator is needed to protect the financial interests of British farmers, and to end the misleading advertising of imported goods as home-grown.

Speaking on our need to not only produce more food, but to also protect and promote biodiversity, Rebanks highlights the importance of a ‘land use framework’, a large-scale plan for how we ensure our land is meeting all of these goals. He criticises the government’s position that there will be ‘no significant change in current policies’ in Defra, asking Labour to be brave and bold in its position on the land.

Part of this reform, and an attainable first step, is to shed light on Defra. Rebanks asks for the latest numbers on the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme to be published, allowing the public to assess whether this post-Brexit tactic has been successful or not. The NFU estimates that raising the agricultural budget from £3.7 billion to £5.5 billion will bring about the change that is needed, and so Defra need to argue for this money at the Treasury. He compares this extra £2 billion needed to transform our agricultural landscape to the £4 billion spent on unused PPE in the first year of the pandemic.

Finally, he calls for a more ethical system of farming and land use. On one hand, making factory farming and cruel meat production practices impossible, while also leaving no room for imported goods that benefit from those same practices to take their place; on the other, radical tax reform that restricts the ability of the elite to take up huge swaths of the British countryside, instead allowing communities to have shared access to land and communal food production.

All in all, Rebanks is asking Starmer and Labour to give farmers and the public a clear vision for what agriculture will look like under their government. He challenges them to be bold, to take action, and to listen to what our farmers are asking for.

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