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NFU President attacks lack of food focus in UK farm policy plan

No mention of food production in Agriculture Bill is a "shocking oversight", according to Minette Batters

The UK government’s plan for post-Brexit agriculture policy in England “falls short” of the aspirations of farmers, the England and Wales National Farmers Union (NFU) has claimed.

And in a scathingly critical reaction to the outline plans, NFU President Minette Batters pointed out that the plans did not include a single mention of food production – which the NFU said was central to the rural economy.

“This is a shocking oversight,” Batters told a press conference in London today (September 12). “On the face of it, the UK Agriculture Bill does not support the UK’s ability to produce its own safe, affordable food.”

Batters also revealed that the NFU had not been given sight of the Bill itself in advance of its presentation to Parliament later today.

The new policy blueprint would see direct payments to farmers phased out by 2027, with money redirected to support Environment Land Management commitments.

But while she supported an environmentally responsive approach to farming, Batters said that farmers wanted to see agriculture through the lens of both the environment and the food industry. “What we don’t want to see is a ‘National Park’ approach that suspends this industry in aspic.”

She added: “I have also seen no mention of measures to address market volatility. We have just lived through the worst summer drought for 40 years. If that hasn’t made clear why the issue of market failure should be taken seriously, I don’t know what will.”

The NFU President also gave a cool response to the idea of “delinked” subsidies which could be paid to those who had diversified or ceased agricultural activity.

“The focus should be on active farmers and business risk-takers,” she said. “We’d expect subsidies to go to active producers.”

UK unwise to rely on ‘volatile’ global market

Batters expressed deep concern that the government was planning to step away from supporting domestic agriculture and to base its strategy increasingly on food imports.

“Relying on free trade agreements to shore up food security would be an extraordinary way to go when we look at the volatile world that we are living in,” she declared. “Have we not learnt any lessons from the food safety scandals of the past?”

The NFU President also warned that the farm policy blueprint would need “a radical review” in the event that the UK left the EU without a comprehensive trade deal in place with the EU and other partners.

“If there was to be ‘cliff edge’ Brexit, we’d be struggling to keep the lights on,” she claimed.

Heading in the right direction?

Meanwhile, the National Sheep Association claims the Agriculture Bill does not go far enough to recognise the breadth or depth of public goods already being delivered by sheep farmers throughout the UK, and wants an average baseline payment “in recognition of the broad public value of productive farming”.

The association welcomes the seven-year transition period, but says the period spent evolving to a new system must take the agricultural industry in the right direction.

Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, explained: “Having a transition period is one thing, but we need confidence we are transitioning to something that is workable and viable. NSA welcomes the concept of farmers being paid for the public goods they provide, but such an approach must recognise what is already being done for animal health and welfare, soil, air and water quality, countryside management and public access – and, absolutely vitally, food production.”

The Agricultural Industries Confederation has bemoaned the lack of details on trade and the Bill’s failure to acknowledge food as a ‘public good’.

However, the Confederation welcomed the opportunities on research and development as well as the extended seven-year transition period.

Responding to the pre-publication announcements, AIC Chief Executive Robert Sheasby expressed concern on the lack of detail on how trade will operate.

“Trade is vital. Whether it is importing farm inputs such as livestock feed and crop protection products, or exporting produce, trade is vital to the whole farm and food supply chains,” said Sheasby.

But he welcomed some features, in particular, the much-needed commitment to innovation and R&D.

“The farm supply industry is the foundation of the whole UK farming and food sector. The publication and implementation of this Bill presents a great opportunity for more integration across the supply chain which can deliver benefits for farming, the environment and the UK economy as a whole,” Sheasby concluded.

"Early signs are good"

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents landowners and farmers in England and Wales, was more upbeat about the plans, which mirror many of their own proposals set out in a paper in May this year.

“The CLA has long promoted a contractual model for the delivery of public goods, as an alternative to direct payments, through our Land Management Contract,” said CLA President Tim Breitmeyer. 

“This should provide clear objectives and obligations for both the Government and the land manager. We are pleased the Government has recognised the full range of public benefits that farmers and land managers can deliver and that they will be rewarded for work such as reducing flood risk, enhancing soil health and air quality and improving access to the countryside.”

It added that the seven-year transition period should be a “sufficient” window for farming businesses to manage the changes.

Martin Harper of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said the “early signs are good” in regard to the Bill and offers a “positive outline of intent” about where they are going with the policy in regard to environmental protection.

However, the transition period is “longer than we think necessary” to enable cooperation between the UK’s four governments and “the big unresolved issue is funding”.

“As expected, there is no clarity on how the Government intend to fund their Green Brexit beyond the existing commitment to maintain the current level of expenditure to 2022,” he said.

“This is something which we should be able to strike common cause with all farming unions. The resources made available to back up the new policy will ultimately be the key test as to whether this Bill is a success or failure.”

 

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