The clock is ticking for the government to back British farming to feed a changing world

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President calls for a prosperous food and farming sector, delivering a secure, safe and affordable supply of British food, says NFU county advisor Gemma Harvey

A stormy Blackmore Vale from Bulbarrow Hill
Image: Laura Hitchcock

In February the NFU hosted its annual conference, bringing together 1,500 farmer and grower members as well as peers, politicians and guests from across the supply chain for two days of thought-provoking speakers and debate.
This year’s line-up included DEFRA Secretary of State Therese Coffey, Farming Minister Mark Spencer and Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer.
Delivering the opening address, NFU President Minette Batters laid out what was needed to ensure a prosperous food and farming sector, one that delivers a secure, safe and affordable supply of British food, for both home markets and overseas and which recognises that farmers are the nation’s working conservationists:
‘There are three key lessons we can take from this extraordinary year,’ she said ‘As the global population continues to rise, and parts of the planet become less suited to producing the food we eat, we have an opportunity – and a duty – to get the best out of our maritime climate. Secondly, in the face of climate change, we should be unwavering in our commitment to achieving Net Zero and contributing to our energy security through on-farm renewables generation. And thirdly, we should never take our food security for granted.
Food security is not the same as self-sufficiency – we will always rely on imports to some degree, and it is sensible to ensure diversity of supply. But food security also means ensuring our food is safe to eat, that it can be distributed efficiently and that it remains affordable. All of which points to prioritising domestic production. The rhetoric of successive governments that “we are a wealthy country … we can just import our food” must be exposed as naïve in the extreme in a rapidly changing and challenging world.
‘The fact remains that volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses in England and Wales today. Critically, those consequences will be felt far beyond farming. They will be felt across the natural environment, and in struggling households across the country.
‘Labour shortages and soaring energy prices are hitting the poultry industry – already reeling from avian influenza – as well as horticultural businesses and pig farms. Meanwhile, other sectors are facing an uncertain future, as direct payments are phased out against a backdrop of huge cost inflation, with agricultural inputs having risen almost 50 per cent since 2019.
‘And the impact of this? UK egg production has fallen to its lowest level in nine years. In 2022, UK egg packers packed almost a billion fewer eggs than they did in 2019.
‘This was also the year that the potential impact of climate change really hit home. The extraordinary temperatures we experienced in July topped the previous record by almost a degree and a half. And while many parts of the country have experienced huge amounts of rainfall recently, impacting farming operations over autumn and winter, some counties remain in official drought status. Despite all this, NFU members and the farmers and growers of Britain continued to bring in the harvest, to produce the nation’s food and to keep the country fed through tough times.
‘We have seen progress; with the publication of the prospectus for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes; with increases to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers schemes; and in securing the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, leading to the Food and Drink Export Council and the placement of eight new agriculture attachés to sell British food overseas.
‘However, more often than not it has been incredibly hard getting the government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions.

NFU President Minette Batters during her opening speech at NFU Conference 2023

The clock is ticking
‘The time is nearly up for the government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do. I have lost count of the times I’ve been told by MPs and Ministers – all the way up to Prime Ministers (plural, four of them!) that farming is at the forefront of this government’s thinking.
‘I won’t let the opposition off the hook either – I believe the rural vote will be absolutely crucial in the next election.
‘There are three cornerstones on which a prosperous farming sector must be built and which any government should use to underpin its farming policy. They are boosting productivity, protecting the environment and managing volatility.
‘But the clock is ticking. It’s ticking for those farmers and growers facing costs of production higher than the returns they get for their produce. It’s ticking for the country, as inflation remains stubbornly high, and the affordability and availability of food come under strain. It’s ticking for our planet, as climate change necessitates urgent, concerted action to reduce emissions and protect our environment. And it’s ticking for government – to start putting meaningful, tangible and effective meat on the bones of the commitments it has made. Commitments to promote domestic food production, to properly incentivise sustainable and climate-friendly farming, to put farmers and growers at the heart of our trade policy, and to guarantee our food security. It really is time to back British Farmers and back British food.’

*extract – read Minette Batters’ speech in full on the NFU website by clicking here

The Farming section is sponsored by Trethowans – Law as it should be

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