The greatest challenges facing UK farming today

3 min read

UK Farming has always faced varying challenges caused by climate, market conditions and labour supply. These challenges are ever more present as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Agricultural challenges

In this age of environmental crisis, it is key that farmers minimise any run-off from their land, as it can clearly affect water quality if it contains traces of fertilizers, pesticides or animal waste. These obviously contribute to a lowering of the water quality in rivers and streams. In the UK, over 40% of such water is still ranked as bad or poor, so this is an area where improvements urgently need to be made.

Agricultural intensification has become more widespread, causing deterioration in soil quality, a reduction in biodiversity and extensive deforestation. Given that this form of UK farming system has become the norm in many regions, it’s a question of urgency that steps are taken to assess the risks and implementation of environmental improvements take place. Suggested measures include mixed farming (with grass-based feeding) and agroforestry, in which crops are planted among trees. In short, a greater agroecological approach to large-scale farming.

Post-Brexit labour shortage

The National Farmers Union has commented that only 1% of the 60,000 seasonal workers picking fruit and vegetables last year was British. The other 99% came from Eastern Europe, in particular, Bulgaria and Romania.

Any shortfalls in casual labour caused by the impact of Brexit may have catastrophic effects on the fruit industry – larger producers may be using state-of-the-art hydroponic poly-tunnels to ripen their produce, but soft fruit is liable to rot if it isn’t picked. The chief executive of the Berry Gardens growers cooperative, Jacqui Green, said that there has already been a 30 to 40% shortfall in labour this year.

Getting a fair price for dairy

As demand rises, global milk production is increasing, and the UK dairy industry is having to manage that rising demand. Even though plant-based milk alternatives have become very popular in the UK over the last five years, milk drinkers are still a loyal bunch, judging by a report from last year. It highlights that 87% of dairy customers still drink cow’s milk, while 94% buy cheese and 78%, yoghurt or creme fraiche.

This volume growth poses multiple challenges for suppliers, not least, the fact that their margins are squeezed to the limit by powerful customers like supermarket chains, who often use dairy as loss leaders in their price wars.

What UK farmers really need more than ever is a longer-term strategy for the dairy sector, as this offers greater potential for improvements in areas such as integrated supply chains, forward contracts (where milk prices can be predictable as opposed to being buffeted by short-termism), fixed-margin contracts of a longer duration, and the benefits of fixing a long-term price for milk which truly reflects production costs.

Climate change

A gene responsible for drought resistance in barley was recently found, and it is likely to form an important part of a future-proof defence against the effects of climate change. The funding of this kind of research in agribusiness is crucial for the long-term robustness of cereal and crop-growing in general. Only last year, the European cereal crop was seriously affected by lack of water. Given that prolonged, dry and hot Summers are practically certain to become the norm, preventative measures are needed to prevent severe impacts on yields and quality. As climate change becomes embedded in planning scenarios, maintaining continuity of supply becomes the highest of priorities.

Agri-business and funding: the Brexit effect

Once the UK leaves the EU, there are concerns that farmers will face an influx of poor-quality food imports to compete with (presumably including the notorious ‘Chlorinated’ Chicken from the USA). Politicians and UK farming insiders have recently had very different perspectives on prospects for crop growers and livestock producers once we leave the European Union.

Minister of State at Defra, Michael Gove, is emphasising that, as long as farmers embrace post-Brexit market conditions, they will prosper. That’s a moot point right now, but the National Farmers’ Union is in the background, warning about the chances of import standards being slackened once the UK is out.