Food Security – Report of meeting held on January 23rd, 2023

Last Monday, January 23rd 2023, Liberal Vannin hosted a public meeting to discuss the Island’s food security.

Chaired by Paul Weatherall, Chair of Liberal Vannin, the panel of speakers consisted of Clare Barber, MHK, Minister for the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture, Ean Parsons, President of the Manx National Farmers Union and David Beard, representing the Manx Fish Producers Organisation.

The well-attended meeting was perhaps dominated by Manx farmers who expressed anxiety at the current uncertainty across the Island’s agricultural sector. Of chief concern was the gap left by the closure of Ramsey Bakery last year and the knock-on effect on Laxey Glen Flour Mill and the farmers who grow milling wheat for processing at the mill. With the mill not requiring their wheat for the foreseeable future, these farmers are looking for markets in the UK, but the cost of transporting wheat across the Irish Sea is prohibitive.

Minister Barber stressed that options are being urgently considered, but Chair, Paul Weatherall called for immediate assurance on transport costs while this review takes place.

Similar concerns were expressed regarding the operation of the Island’s meat plant. Minister Barber again stressed that a full review is under way and that there were significant issues in obtaining qualified slaughterers to cope with demand. Paul Weatherall, Chair said that it was ludicrous that livestock farmers on the Island often found it more cost effective to transport cattle to the UK for slaughter.

Peter Karran, former MHK and founder member of Liberal Vannin argued for more protection for Manx farmers against import of meat products from countries with much lower animal welfare standards.

Kirrie Jenkins, Chair of Arbory & Rushen Parish Commissioners, asked for the Island’s 2008 Agricultural Tenancies Act to be reviewed, stating that food security can’t be guaranteed while the Island’s tenant farmers don’t have land security. The whole question of barriers to entry into farming for young people was then raised, with high costs of training courses at UCM highlighted and the lack of financial support for students undertaking non-degree courses at agricultural colleges in the UK.

Tree planting on the Island was questioned, with concern expressed that it was a nonsense that good agricultural land should be planted with trees when grassland and crops such as hemp can also be valuable for carbon sequestration. David Beard  highlighted the importance of eel grass and kelp in Manx waters in this regard. It was agreed that all these factors must be considered when developing the Island’s policy on carbon sequestration. However, Ean Parsons assured the audience that farmers weren’t giving up prime agricultural land for woodland. Liberal Vannin’s view is that trees are the most effective way of capturing carbon, and the Island is currently under-forested, but we agree that a sensible and sustainable balance must be struck and that peat reserves on our uplands should also be protected.

The lack of government support for the procurement of Manx produced food for consumption in our schools, hospitals and care homes was raised as a particular concern. Minister Barber agreed that it was a false economy for schools, etc. to go for cheaper imported supplies and that she would support changes to procurement rules.

David Beard called for the Manx Government to be more robust with the UK when negotiating fishing quotas in Manx waters and noted that qualifications for operating Manx fishing vessels at sea were virtually non-existent and that this should be addressed as a matter of urgency by the Manx Shipping Register.

Overall, there was a positive view from the Manx NFU and the Manx Fish Producers Organisation for the support that they are currently receiving from the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture, but there was a call from the meeting for a more strategic view given to food security across government and more decisive action, rather than seemingly endless reviews. Liberal Vannin were asked to consider convening a follow-up meeting in a few months’ time to review progress. Chair, Paul Weatherall stressed that the various “pieces of work” that Minister Barber assured the audience were under way should be closely monitored and government held to account if the issues raised at the meeting were not addressed.

Liberal Vannin believes that our government must continue to support our farming and fishing communities to ensure the sustainable supply of high-quality food for our Island residents, visitors and export markets.