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‘It is just daft’ – Angry response to suggestion that UK doesn’t need farmers

PUBLISHED: 07:38 05 March 2020 | UPDATED: 07:38 05 March 2020

Farmer John Collen, from Gisleham near Lowestoft, has dismissed a government adviser's suggestion that the UK doesn't need farmers. Picture: NFU

Farmer John Collen, from Gisleham near Lowestoft, has dismissed a government adviser's suggestion that the UK doesn't need farmers. Picture: NFU

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East Anglian farmers have rubbished the “daft” suggestion by a senior government adviser that Britain does not need an agricultural industry.

Farmers have rubbished a government adviser's suggestion that the UK doesn't need an agricultural industry. Picture: Nick ButcherFarmers have rubbished a government adviser's suggestion that the UK doesn't need an agricultural industry. Picture: Nick Butcher

In leaked emails seen by the Mail on Sunday, Treasury adviser Dr Tim Leunig is understood to have said the food sector was "not critically important" to the country's economy - and that agriculture and fisheries "certainly isn't".

The economic adviser to the chancellor was also reported to have said ministers could follow the example of Singapore which is "rich without having its own agricultural sector".

The government was quick to distance itself from the comments, saying they are "not in line with government policy" - but they have added fuel to industry fears that ministers could discard safeguards for farmers and fishermen in the forthcoming post-Brexit trade talks with the US and the EU.

Food standards have become a dominating issue as negotiators prepare for trade talks. Last week, environment secretary George Eustice came in for criticism after he refused to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being imported from the US as part of a trade agreement with Washington.

Farmers are worried that allowing cheaper, lower-quality foods into the UK could undermine the competitiveness of British farmers who operate to higher standards - and threaten our country's self-sufficiency.

John Collen, who farms about 2,500 acres of land near Lowestoft, said: "Exporting our entire budget of food production to other parts of the world is just daft - not least because of the environmental impact it will create.

"The standards that are applied throughout the world are different to ours, which are at the pinnacle of sustainability in terms of animal welfare and the environment. To have created those standards over the years and then throw them away would be absolute folly.

"And to suggest that we can just walk away from production and still have food security for a country of our population... it would be political suicide for any government to do that.

"It does indicate the fears we have as an industry of being thrown to the lions with an American trade deal. It is clearly in the mind of some.

"We are absolutely confident we can compete against the rest of the world on any standards as long as those standards are applied equally to all.

"By importing all our food, all we would be doing is moving that environmental responsibility somewhere else. Having a nice 10-acre field surrounded by hedges has a massive cost compared to a 10,000-acre field in Brazil without a single hedge or obstruction within it. The general public don't want that type of production. They are telling us they want nature conserved.

"We can grow these nice meadows and plant trees and whatever is required of us, but it is critically important that we are making these decisions with our eyes open that off-setting production here has a massive impact somewhere else."

READ MORE: Under-pressure farming industry has never had 'more on its plate', says leading farmer

National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Minette Batters also criticised the comparison with Singapore, telling Sky News: "Singapore has five million people, and doesn't have any farmed landscape so it actually has to import all its food.

"Here 75pc of Britain is a farmed landscape, we have a fantastic maritime climate in which to produce our food, and we have 60 million-plus people here to feed so there's a sort of moral imperative, if you like, for us to be able to produce food in this country. So, absolutely, we need our farmers."

Cath Crowther, East regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) added: "Farming is vital to our future prosperity as a nation. Not only are farmers feeding the nation with high-quality food but they have a crucial role to play in being part of the solution in combating climate change, maintaining our beautiful landscapes and improving our natural environment.

"Importing food from countries with lower health and welfare standards and where inefficient production would increase our carbon footprint is simply not an option."

Sources told the PA news agency that Dr Leunig's remarks were made in personal emails and that Dr Leunig was not speaking in his Treasury role.

A government spokesman said: "We have made clear the comments are not in line with government policy."

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