Pray for our farmers

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the National Farmers Union conference in Birmingham. Meanwhile down in Dover, a somewhat less official band of British farmers used tractor rallies to protest against their treatment by the government and the big supermarkets.

Here the post-Brexit trade deals negotiated by government threaten – many of us argue - to undermine high animal welfare and food standards and undercut British farmers. The supermarkets strive to keep food prices down for their customers but this means that farmers are paid even less for what they produce.

And farming protests seem to be escalating in France too, indeed across Europe – from Belgium to Poland.

Tractor convoys have blockaded roads into Paris, Berlin and Rome, and gathered outside the EU Parliament in Brussels. The protests do not seem to be co-ordinated. Each one raises concerns for the future of farming in their own nations, but collectively they demonstrate an outpouring of anger and frustration at a range of regulations, policies and trade deals that hit the incomes and sustainability of farmers across the continent.

Across Europe, we see populist politicians appealing to rural voters, based heavily upon the view that their governments are ignoring them, that they care only for urban concerns and support climate change measures that they claim will put hard working farmers out of business.

We see this in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni has presented Italian food production as integral to national identity. We see it in the Netherlands where the populist Farmer-Citizen movement came from nowhere last year to become the largest party in the upper chamber. We also see it in France, where the arrival of Macron at the Paris Agricultural show caused crowds of farmers to break through security barriers and need holding back by riot police.

As Christians we should resist attempts to pit groups against one another, especially when the issues are so complex. So we shouldn't see climate change as a left wing agenda, or supporting farmers as only a priority for those on the right. After all, a changing climate means that farm land is being either desiccated or deluged and rendered unfarmable. If we want to have enough to eat, then we need to support farmers and we need to tackle climate change.

But how do we balance the competing tensions of the need for affordable food, safeguarding the vital work of our farmers and protecting the environment?

These concerns all form part of our stewardship responsibilities set out in Genesis 2: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."

We are charged with managing the land productively and responsibly and valuing its fruits. This includes giving farmers a fair price for what they produce, and the conservation and protection of the environment.

Farmers have a closeness and rootedness to the land that many of us have lost as we view food in terms of what we can buy from the supermarket. But those living in Biblical times would recognise it: a dependence on the soil and the right weather and environmental conditions.

In the Bible, abundant crops were seen as a sign of God's blessing, and droughts or floods as punishments. Our theology does not tend to make such direct links today, but we undoubtedly reap the consequences of our actions.

If the land is polluted by chemicals and sewage discharged into rivers, if government policies actively dissuade farmers from growing food, or reward corporate landlords for evicting tenants who have farmed the land for generations, all of these things undermine our ability to feed our people and care for the environment.

As an MP for a rural constituency with over a thousand farms, and my party's agriculture spokesman, I care deeply about farming – about high quality food, high environmental standards and animal welfare.

Farmers' livelihoods are precarious like very few others. They not only rely on so many factors they have no control over, but small farmers must also wear multiple hats. They must be businesspeople, animal experts, geology experts, skilled administrators able to understand changing government legislation and guidelines, practically skilled and strong and able to turn their hand to the never-ending jobs list. A standard day, which will be every single day – animals and crops don't take days off – could be from 4am until 11pm.

Farming is a high calling indeed because it involves both feeding the country and saving the planet. But it's also a very hard calling. This, along with other factors like demographics and isolation, has led to a feeling of rising hopelessness for many farmers. Tragically, it is the occupation with one of the highest suicide rates in the country.

The world is currently afflicted by warfare, democratic uncertainty, disrupted trade routes and displaced people. But we all depend on God's gift of our planet to sustain us, and we need to pray for trade deals and policies that uphold high standards of welfare and conservation and offer food security by supporting the farmers that feed us. We're commanded to care for the hungry and indeed to pray for our own daily bread. Let's be thankful then for those who God has ordained to produce the food that we eat and consider the politics behind making their job easier, not harder.

Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017. Tim is also the host of Premier's A Mucky Business' podcast, which unpacks the murky world of politics and encourages believers around the UK to engage prayerfully. He is the author of A Mucky Business: Why Christians should get involved in politics.