NFU president Minette Batters says government needs to back its words with actions

The clock is ticking for the government to back its words with actions and ensure British farmers and growers can continue to play their part in feeding and fuelling a changing and challenging world.

That was the message from National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters, who delivered the opening address at the NFU Conference in Birmingham on 21 February. 

Batters laid out the three cornerstones she said were 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 recognises that farmers are “the nation’s working conservationists in protecting and enhancing the environment.”

There are three key lessons that can be learnt from the past year, Batters said. Firstly, there is a duty to get the best out of Britain’s maritime cliamte. Secondly, the drive to achieve net zero and contribute to the nation’s energy security through on-farm renewables generation. And thirdly, Batters said the country should never take its food security for granted.

“But the fact remains, volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses in England and Wales today,” she said. ”Critically, those consequences will be felt far beyond farming. They will be felt across the natural environment, and in struggling households across the country.”

During her speech Batters namechecked the impact of labour shortages and soaring energy prices on the horticulture sector, as well as the struggle against inflation in agricultural inputs. She noted that production of salad ingredients such as tomatoes and cucumbers are expected to fall to the lowest levels since records began in 1985.

Climate impact

The potential impact of climate change hit home hard in the past year, Batters continued. ”The extraordinary temperatures we experienced in July topped the previous record by almost a degree and a half. While many parts of the country have experienced huge amounts of rainfall recently, impacting farming operations over autumn and winter, some counties still 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.”

‘Time nearly up’ for government

Batters joked that she has already had to deal with four UK prime ministers during her tenure, but she had a serious message for parties on both sides of the despatch box: “More often than not, it has been incredibly hard getting government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions,” she said. ”The time is nearly up for 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 won’t let the opposition off the hook either; I believe the rural vote will be 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.”