Listen to the earth, listen to Unite

Climate change will change what we grow and where we grow it. Maybe we need to adapt to survive?

Climate change – it’s what everyone is talking about. But among all the dramatic stories of devastation, fire and flood, there’s one key aspect to the debate that’s generally overlooked. One key aspect that if acted upon could really save the Earth.

Because food production – just like food workers themselves – is an aspect of climate change rarely spoken about. It has none of the instant cinematic impact, yet climate change will and already does affect food production, our food choices and how we survive into the future.

Unite has over 100,000 food workers in membership – making it the union’s largest single manufacturing sector. When you hear the word ‘manufacturing’ you tend to think of automotive or aerospace production, maybe ship building – but rarely in connection to what you eat. Yet food manufacturing as an industry has a turnover of over £104.4bn, representing nearly 20 per cent of total UK manufacturing. And if climate change threatens the UK’s food security, we should all be concerned.


But first let me take you to Barking – an east London suburb. Now I can say this as I grew up around there – but Barking is utterly unremarkable – except for maybe three things.

First – it’s the home of Billy Bragg. Second it has an excellent children’s swimming team – the ‘Barking Seals’ – coached by my sister Laura and Billy’s brother Dave. And thirdly back in June, it was the town that was hit by a quite extraordinary, extreme weather event.

Because on Friday, June 25 around 7.20 pm – as families were finishing their tea and settling down to watch Coronation Street, a most dreadful howling wind began to tear through their streets, terrifying residents as they cowered behind their doors, under tables, wherever they felt safest.

Those that could watched in horror as the fast-moving snake-like cloud-formation smashed down whatever stood in its’ path.

This was a cyclone and its fury knew no bounds. Fences fell, walls toppled down like dominoes, roof tiles came off, windows smashed, hanging baskets, wheelie bins, fallen masonry – all sucked up into the vortex and hurled to wherever the cyclone dropped them.

Then came the storm, the lightning, the flash flood that poured down one month’s rain in a matter of minutes.

Point of no return

When cyclones hit the burbs that’s a point of no return. We can’t stop climate change – it’s far too late. But we can try our hardest to not make the situation worse and we can adapt to live with and work within a climate-changed world. It’s a force that can’t be tamed to our current consumerist lifestyles, where we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it. And at the very heart of the changes that we desperately need to make, is to our food – where it comes from, how it is produced, where we buy it, what we actually eat.

I believe that to help make a difference to climate change globally, we have to think on a far more local level – but more of that later.

What do people know about climate change and food production? I’m sure most of the public never even put the two together. But that ignorance has to be redressed. Because in the UK – the fifth richest economy in the world – most of us take food for granted. People don’t care where their food comes from as long as they get what they want. They largely don’t care how it was produced or picked.

The forgotten army

On the whole very few people care about food production and farm workers. They are a forgotten army. An army of workers who got us through lockdowns, the worst the pandemic could throw at us – some even died from Covid that they contracted in their crowded, dangerous work places. All on a low wage.

Their dedication to feeding the nation – by and large – has gone unnoticed. They are key workers too – but like no others. Because no one thanks them, claps for them, mourns for their loss. It’s a national shame that we do not truly value these heroic workers – and that has to change.

Because a strong, well paid, safe, food and agricultural work force is central to how we can adapt to climate change.

That together with changing our crops and consumer buying patterns, keeping things on a more local and seasonal level – could be a real solution.

But first let’s talk about our agricultural workforce. In 2013 the government decided to kill off the agricultural wages board (the AWB) – and with it – at least for workers in England – fair negotiated pay, access to decent housing and recognition of knowledge and experience.

The other three nations were able to fight back and got their own versions of agricultural wages’ boards. But the lion’s share of agricultural workers are in England. All workers over 23 get the so-called national living wage of £8.91. Forget the accommodation offset. Forget the differential for skills and experience. No annual pay negotiations – no terms and conditions negotiations – that’s all you are worth.

In the other nations who have agricultural wages’ boards the situation is far better. In Northern Ireland you could even pick up £10.84 an hour – nearly £2 more than in England.

“To make a difference to climate change globally we have to act locally. We have to grow local, buy local and eat locally grown produce, in season”

Most dangerous industry – again

But whatever the rate, with the conditions, the long hours, the poor safety records – last year agriculture was again the most dangerous industry in the UK. Working day in day out in all weathers, it’s hard, hard work. Any idea what the average age of the UK farm worker is? Well it’s 59. Many still work into their 70s. But if you leave school at 18 with a fistful of qualifications – why would you choose to work in agriculture? Could it be for the whopping £6.56 an hour? The very long hours and strenuous work in all weathers? The unsafe conditions? Poor accommodation, or none? Or is it the complete lack of training and skills development as the Tories continue to close down the agricultural colleges?

Or maybe it’s the lure of Morrisons, paying £10 an hour, or an HSBC admin assistant at £13. Either way you can see why young people – or anyone else for that matter – are not exactly falling over themselves to roll up their sleeves to dig for Britain.

Radical rethink

And this is where we all need a radical rethink into how and what food we produce, where it’s produced and what does the workforce need to make it all happen.

Earlier I said to make a difference to climate change globally we have to act locally. We have to grow local, buy local and eat locally grown produce, in season.

If you’re over 50 you will doubtless remember ‘the strawberry season’ – an important event in June – much anticipated by myself aged 9, because if there were strawberries there would be ice cream! Life didn’t get much better than that.

But now if I wanted to buy a box of strawberries at 11.30 pm on a late November night, all I have to do is tap an app and they would be brought to me, at some ridiculous cost, freshly flown in from South Africa. How does that help us halt climate change?

If you are older, or from a working class background – you will know what it’s like to not be able to have what you want, when you want it. And certainly as far as food is concerned maybe we’ll have to start living that life again.

Climate change will change what we grow and where we grow it. We need to think again – to match crops with new weather trends. We can adapt to the changes climate change has brought upon us. We have to do this to survive.

Nearly half our food is imported

Nearly half of our food is imported. So we need to buy locally grown food where we can. Of course it’s not always possible – but wouldn’t it be great to buy fresh local food, grown and produced by – in effect – your neighbours? Who doesn’t love a good farmers’ market?

But to be able, as consumers, to say to supermarkets who have dictated what we buy for years, no, I’m not buying your loss leading bland imported yoghurts from Germany – no I’m buying fresh yoghurts from a local dairy – who you have been trying to close down for years. Now that would be a result.

Best pay and conditions for workforce

And the last and most important part of the jigsaw – the workforce. We need the best conditions and pay to attract workers to a career in agriculture. We need a return to an agricultural wages’ board-style panel throughout the UK; recognition in pay and status for these key workers; trade union recognition; regular safety checks for all workplaces.

There are so many other things I could list but I believe if implemented these actions would encourage local people to work at their local farms – further reducing the carbon footprint.

So what does the government need to do? Essentially – invest in agriculture – the industry of the future. It’s no use Boris speaking at a rostrum promising all kinds of measures to cut carbon while ignoring the most obvious way to not only reduce CO2, but to create local jobs, develop skills, boost local economies, feed the nation and support the growing sense of community and comradeship this investment in agriculture and its workforce will bring about.

World class industry

That’s our demands – and we need Labour now to answer Unite’s call – and help us bring about a world class agricultural industry, where unions are recognised, workers are safe, respected and paid well, while at the same time reducing our negative impact on the planet. We need your help.

‘Speak to the earth’

Finally, I’ll take you back to a small town near Barking, called Ilford. Now like many older people here, when I was about 10 I was packed off to Sunday school. It was that or wash the car. Please indulge me as I share with you the only bible verse that I’ve ever remembered. It’s very short and it’s this: ‘Speak to the earth – and it will teach thee.’

Well, thousands of Unite members working in agriculture and food, have all, in their own way, spoken to the earth and listened. Now we’re asking that both the government and Labour speak to our members about climate change and food production.

And you never know, if they actually listen to the voices of the thousands who work on the land, they just might learn something that would help us all in the battle to survive climate change.

Amanda Campbell Unite Landworker editor