The president of the National Farmers’ Union has attacked Boris Johnson’s government for “completely contradictory” policies that show a “total lack of understanding of how food production works”, in a ramping up of rhetoric from the UK’s largest farming group.
Minette Batters told the NFU’s annual conference that after a labor crisis, a controversial subsidy overhaul and a trade deal with Australia that is expected to cut into UK farm output, “the UK government’s energy and ambition for our countryside seems to be almost entirely focused on anything other than domestic food production ”.
“We need a plan that pre-empts crises rather than repeatedly running into them,” Batters said.
The speech marks the extent of farmers’ disillusionment with the Conservative government despite the party’s longstanding links with rural areas. The NFU and other farming lobby groups have attempted to influence post-Brexit policies on subsidies, trade and immigration but have faced repeated setbacks.
Batters accused the government of “raising the bar for environmental standards at home but pursuing trade deals that support lower standards overseas; claiming to value domestic food production but making it difficult to find workers. . . stating there are many export opportunities for British food but failing to prioritize the resources to open up those new markets ”.
She cited the example of a labor shortage in the abattoir sector that is linked to post-Brexit immigration restrictions which has resulted in the culling of 40,000 pigs, while another 200,000 animals are backed up on farms, placing intense financial pressure on pig farmers.
An Australian trade deal agreed in December has also angered farmers and prompted concerns over future post-Brexit agreements, after the government’s impact assessment projected a £ 94mn hit to growth in UK agriculture.
Along with steep rises in the cost of fertilizer, feed and other inputs, there are concerns about the post-Brexit green subsidies scheme that will be rolled out over the next five years to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
Batters called the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme, which aims to pay farmers and landowners for environmental work, “a payment system almost in opposition to food production” and said the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the part of that scheme aimed at a majority of farmers , was at risk of “barely produc[ing] a profit for [them]”.
“The country needs a strategy and a clear vision for what we expect from British farming,” she said.
George Eustice, environment secretary, told farmers at that same event that ministers were “committed to designing our future policies [together] with industry ”.
He added that they were adjusting schemes aiming to help pig farmers, such as a private storage offering for pig meat, to make them useful to more farmers, although he declined to offer direct financial support to farms.
Eustice faced tough questions from farmers, including on past pledges that the UK would not import food under post-Brexit trade deals that were grown or reared to lower standards than those imposed in the UK.
“Generally speaking, if you look at our animal welfare outcomes, there is a strong degree of equivalence between the UK and Australia,” Eustice insisted.