Farming will need seven times more workers

Many farms in the United Kingdom are unprofitable because of globalisation, and globalisation depends on a profligate waste of fossil energy, energy that is not counted as a cost of food production.  DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, does not take real energy costs into account for its ‘standard labour requirements’ or SLRs, which are the notional hours of labour required to produce a hectare of a specific crop, or to look after a cow, a sheep or other farm animal.

One hectare of cereals has an SLR of 20, a supposed 20 hours of work a year, a hectare of sugar beet 33 hours, one dairy cow 39 hours, and one hill ewe 4.2 hours.[i] These SLRs are so low because metals have been manufactured into machinery, and oil and natural gas have been transformed into pharmaceuticals and artificial fertilisers, and transported over large distances to the farms, where they replace the labour used in past centuries.

Looking after one dairy cow in a low-energy, old-fashioned system takes, typically, over 270 hours a year, about seven times longer than the hours allowed in the SLR. Cultivating a hectare of sugar beet using oxen power instead of engine power would take seven or eight times longer. Put another way, the farm labour force would have to rise at least sevenfold to achieve yields that in many cases would be lower than those attained with the help of energy-intensive inputs.

Sustainable agriculture requires people to replace fossil energy. The uncomfortable questions for us to face include:

  • Who will be willing to become a food producer? Would there be enough volunteers? If not, are we facing forms of national service or forced labour? Would it be possible to pay workers a living wage?
  • Would enough land be made available for food production? If not, what strategies could be used to persuade landowners to release land for sustainable farming?
  • Where would the new food producers live? In the UK there are insufficient vacant homes in rural areas to house double the current farm workforce, let alone a workforce seven or eight time larger.
  • How would food production enterprises be structured? Would there be a range of choices, such as co-operatives, private companies, state-owned ventures?
  • Where would investment capital come from? The financial returns from sustainable agriculture are likely to be small, insufficient to repay expensive loans.

Answers please!

[i] See Table 1, Standard Labour Requirements, in Report of the UK Farm Classification Working Party, from DEFRA, February 2004. There is a useful tabulation, Table 3.80, in ‘Analysis of labour usage data from the farm business survey from 2004/05 to 2007/08, by Paul Wilson, Rural Business Research at the University of Nottingham, December 2009.


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