All the odds are stacked against UK farmers so it’s time for Ministers to champion us – rather than patronise us, writes National Farmers’ Union President MINETTE BATTERS
As a farmer and president of the NFU, representing 55,000 farming businesses, all I’ve ever wanted is for global Britain to strike trade deals that are fair for farmers and fair to the British public; deals that fulfil the Government’s very strong commitment that our farmers won’t be undermined.
We know how much the public cares about this. Last year, more than a million people signed one of the biggest petitions the country has seen – demanding that British food standards are protected.
The Mail on Sunday’s Save Our Family Farms campaign has been vital in this fight and led the Government to introduce a legally binding commitment to produce a report on the impacts that trade deals will have on food and farming. There is no other sector that will allow MPs oversight and ultimately a say on free trade agreements.
But the future of rural Britain –our iconic countryside with its patchwork of stone walls, hedges, flower meadows, rolling fields of wheat and barley – is at a crossroads. Its fate – along with farming and food production – lies in political hands and the decisions made by Ministers will have far-reaching and huge consequences for us all.
Minette Batters (left), pictured with former International Trade Secretary Liz Truss (right), wants global Britain to strike trade deals that are fair for farmers and fair to the British public
I often hear talk in Government that farmers are no longer relevant to modern politics, too small a voice to matter.
What such wrong-headed views don’t factor in is that farmers underpin the very fabric of the country and the environment that politicians are so committed to protecting. Remove farmers and environmental degradation is inevitable.
Although food security and self-sufficiency are of critical national importance, the Government’s actions indicate a level of questionable economic literacy.
I can only think Ministers are blind to the damage they’ll be presiding over or, even worse, they’re actively pursuing a policy of cold-blooded attrition of the land. I hope my biggest fear is unfounded.
Failure to maintain food self-sufficiency would drive farmers from the land. For it is they who run businesses, food production and who care for the environment – and you can’t have one without the other.
So when I hear talk about setting 30 per cent of land aside for nature, my immediate question is what about the farmers? Who will look after the land, produce our food?
And what are we to do when Ministers tell businesses that they must increase costs with higher wages and abide by tougher regulations, while in the same breath ask us to cut costs to compete with the most efficient farmers in the world? These questions cause downward glances and as yet remain unanswered.
Success for all independent trading nations lies in partnership working. After many years, the New Zealanders and Australians have learned to spread their risk. They have small populations. They can farm at huge scale and are therefore serious exporters of agricultural commodities. Their production costs are much lower and they allow for a flexible global scheme on access to workers.
Their governments, too, are heavily invested in the technical expertise for opening up new markets and – interestingly – food prices in both countries are higher than the UK.
Such issues are not the only reason why the stakes for British farmers are exceptionally high.
Our Government is introducing new laws on animal sentience, animal welfare and the environment.
These are areas about which farmers care passionately. Our only ask is that other countries, with whom we are striking trade deals, do the same. But there is no sign of this happening.
Crucially, as with any business, British farmers would become uncompetitive if undercut by imported food produced in ways that would be illegal in this country.
I’m continually asked by Ministers to think positively. Quite frankly, that is deeply insulting to the farmers who I represent. If you are running a business which could fold because while you raise standards, at the same time your own Government welcomes imports produced with much lower standards, it is offensive to be told by politicians just to smile more. Our antipodean cousins have played a blinder in the negotiations for the trade deal agreed with Britain last week. New Zealand’s PM patted Boris Johnson on the back and used a rugby analogy to give her verdict on the deal: ‘The All Blacks won!’
Six years ago, the then Australian High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, told me: ‘You screwed us over when you joined the EU. We’ve been through hell and we’re coming back to get you.’
Minette Batters of the National Farmers’ Union (left) said she often hears talk in Government that farmers are no longer relevant to modern politics, too small a voice to matter
How right he was. The UK has allowed a fully liberalised trade deal that the Australians never thought in their wildest dreams was possible.
I don’t doubt the pain that Australia had previously suffered – and I also don’t doubt the passion Australia had for ensuring its farmers got a great deal with the UK.
What farmers here – and the British public – need is the same willpower and ambition from our government.
Representatives of Australia’s High Commission in this country have been very busy here – hosting parties for Cabinet members and MPs – championing their great country. In view of this, I spoke to one of these Australian representatives at the recent Conservative Party conference and told them that my members needed equivalent action from our Government. They agreed.
I also asked if they thought Australia would have an animal sentience or welfare bill any time soon. The response was: ‘Never! We need to be globally competitive.’ That conversation vividly underlined to me how high the odds really are stacked against British farming.
As we stand at the crossroads of change, there are vital choices for our Government to take.
Those choices are simple. Do we want our farmers to have a future? Do we believe that we should have a thriving food producing industry? Do we want to support our farmers in their drive to go net zero by 2040? Or do we want to outsource our food production, abandon British farming to history and wave in food from anywhere in the world, regardless of the standards and conditions in which it is produced?
To secure our farmers’ future, requires strong, global leadership. I believe there are four things Britain needs from our Government to help get us on the right road.
1. Follow the lead of Australia and New Zealand by putting in place full-time trade ambassadors, or agricultural counsellors, to identify new countries to export to and open up these markets for our high quality food. Farmers should be invited to be part of trade delegations to underline the trust, traceability and standards of our food production.
2. In the legally binding food security report that the Government has to produce before the end of the year, the Government needs to use the current food self-sufficiency figure of 60 per cent as a metric for success. The fact is that if food production levels drop too low, our farming industry will become unviable.
3. Ensure we have a planned approach to accessing a workforce for our farms and food processing industry when they’re needed. And thus make sure we never again face the same crisis of slaughtering healthy pigs simply because of a shortage of abattoir workers.
4. Work with the British farming sector to be world leaders in climate-smart farming. Our farmers want to lead the world, using new, sustainable farming policies.
Never has there been a more pressing time for Britain to show global leadership in sustainable, quality food production.
The Government has the opportunity to win a global gold for this at COP26. The alternative is the huge risk that in future years we will look back and realise – to paraphrase Churchill – that never have we lost so much for so little…
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