Agricultural and County Shows — [Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:29 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:29 pm, 21st July 2022

Thank you for filling in at the last minute, Dr Huq. I thank Mr Holden for securing this important debate and informing us of the many agricultural shows that operate in Durham. I remember as a nine-year-old going to the Royal Show at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh, which sadly has now closed. I was amazed at the animal activities and the sounds and smells, which stayed with me, so I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about agricultural shows.

The years 1066, 1939 and 1966 are all famous in our history. The years 1763, 1796 and 1838 probably mean little to most of the population, but mention them to farming communities the length and breadth of the country and the response will be different. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Wolsingham Show, which was the first agricultural show to be held in Britain, in 1763. The Otley Show in my constituency was first held in 1796, and is now the longest-running one-day agricultural show in the United Kingdom, and 1838 saw the creation of the Yorkshire Show, now the Great Yorkshire Show, which Andrew Jones spoke about at length. It is now the largest show, with 140,000 visitors, and I am sure that will grow year on year. I did not go this year, but I went last year, when there were only 130,000 visitors. We are clearly ramping up the visitor numbers at the Yorkshire agricultural showground.

All agricultural and county shows play an extremely important role in rural Britain. They provide an insight into farming and an opportunity for farmers to promote stock and produce, as well as the food industry more widely. They are above all a celebration of British farming, but they are not only that. We need to reflect on the fact that farming can be an isolating job on a day-to-day basis. Shows give farmers community, something to aim for, and an opportunity to reaffirm their pride and commitment to farming. Farmers put a huge amount of time and effort into their stock, and shows provide the platform to build both their reputation and their business.

It is not just farmers who benefit from agricultural shows, though. Whatever their size, shows give the public the opportunity to learn more about farming and build an understanding of the connection between our farms and the food on our tables. In a world of prepackaged, pre-cut supermarket produce, it is a much-needed education about the origins of our food. In a world of uncertainty about the quality of our food, it gives the public the reassurance that livestock is well cared for by our farming communities.

Agricultural and county shows provide an opportunity for us to celebrate rural life and the invaluable contribution that farming makes to this country. Agriculture is a vital industry filled with talented and hard-working people, but under the watch of our current Government, the farming sector has been beset by crisis after crisis, from the pig backlog that resulted in tens of thousands of healthy pigs being culled, to the avian flu outbreak of the past year—the worst in living memory.

During these difficult times, farmers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and mainland Europe have been able to turn to their Governments for help. Farmers in England have not been given the same support. This year, at agricultural shows up and down the country the main topic of conversation among many attendees will be the latest set of crises bearing down on the agriculture sector: inflation, lack of seasonal labour, and the botched roll-out of the environmental land management scheme. It is a dangerous combination that is putting the future of British farming and agriculture in jeopardy.

Farmers, those in the industry and Opposition Members have been warning for months that British agriculture faces a chronic shortage of workers this year, but the Government have apparently not listened. The response in ramping up the number of seasonal worker visas has been very slow: they are now at 40,000, but the NFU has said it wants 70,000 worker visas to bridge the gaps. NFU survey data for April showed an estimated notional seasonal worker shortfall of 12% in horticulture—three times the figure for the same month last year. Industry experts say that there will be a catastrophic waste of home-grown fruit and vegetables this summer due to the lack of workers. Ultimately, many agricultural businesses face bankruptcy if they cannot access the necessary labour to harvest their crops. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will address those issues when they go to the shows this summer.

On top of a shortage of workers, farmers are also contending with soaring inflation, which is pushing up the price of agricultural inputs. Independent consultant Andersons’ latest inflation estimate for agriculture is 30.6% — three times higher than general inflation. Agflation is a huge issue, and one we must address.

As we all know, the invasion of Ukraine has resulted in significant increases in gas prices. For some farmers, the price of gas is now as much as 200% higher than it was at the start of 2021. Without food security, the food supply that people up and down the country expect will start to disappear. We saw shortages of food on shelves during covid; we might be back there again, perhaps worse. Some greenhouse growers cannot afford to heat their greenhouses and we are seeing a drop in the production of crops like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, which will mean more imports and potentially more shortage as demand builds across Europe.

In addition, fertiliser production is also heavily linked to gas. As international gas prices soar, so does the cost of fertiliser. In January 2021, the cost of ammonium nitrate was £200 per tonne; it is now £900 per tonne and rising. We are seeing a catastrophic conflation of problems affecting farmers, who will be going to the shows this summer and discussing them with each other, and raising them with us as politicians.

Food businesses face the same problems. I recently spoke to a Yorkshire biscuit manufacturer that has seen a huge increase in the prices of all its main ingredients. Margarine, sugar and wheat prices are all affected by the war in Ukraine and the agricultural worker shortage. The manufacturer cannot afford to increase workers’ wages, but has had to put up its prices as inflation is running at over 10%. That same issue was raised with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in his discussions with Asda at the Great Yorkshire Show. As Asda is a Leeds-based business, I will also be discussing those issues with the company.

These latest crises take place against the backdrop of the slow introduction of the ELM scheme—another big talking point among farmers, the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association at shows and elsewhere. The Government are phasing out direct payments, but were are seeing a significant gap between the ELM scheme’s introduction and direct payments being phased out. Farms could go to the wall if the scheme’s roll-out is not accelerated. This is another example of agriculture being pushed into a difficult place. If the Government continue to push ahead as they are, many farming businesses will go bust. This not only harms farmers, but undermines our efforts to reach net zero, which may force us to import more food, produce to lower environmental standards, and use more carbon to get it here.

Many Government Members will be preoccupied over the summer by yet another Tory leadership election, but at agriculture and county shows, I fear people will be more concerned about the challenges facing British agriculture and food businesses. While the Government may be content to amble on without a plan, Labour pledges to provide agricultural communities with the support they need. On the ELM scheme, the Opposition support the NFU’s call for basic payment reductions to be paused for two years to provide more time for the scheme to be rolled out. We would reprioritise the ELM scheme to secure more domestic food production in an environmentally sustainable way, as part of our plan to support farmers to reach net zero. The shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team will be at shows all summer discussing these issues and offering solutions. I hope the Minister can offer us some now.