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East Anglia Future 50

Farmers urged to harness Norfolk's political power base to avoid cheap food 'crisis'

PUBLISHED: 17:46 07 February 2019 | UPDATED: 18:13 07 February 2019

NFU president Minette Batters speaking at the 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

NFU president Minette Batters speaking at the 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Keiron Tovell

Norfolk agriculture faces its biggest crisis for decades if there is a no-deal Brexit – so farmers must work with their MPs to push the importance of home-grown food up the political agenda.

The 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron TovellThe 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

That was the message from the UK’s most senior farming leader as she spoke to around 400 delegates at the Norfolk Farming Conference, held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said Norfolk farmers are uniquely placed to use their broad expertise and the “power base” of the county’s big-hitting politicians to make the case for agriculture in trade negotiations and policy discussions.

She said Brexit, now just 50 days away, could also bring opportunities – but while optimistic that an 11th-hour agreement can be struck to allow an orderly withdrawal from the EU, she warned that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic on “every single level” for Norfolk farmers.

A particular concern is the possibility that import tariffs could be unilaterally slashed to keep food prices low for consumers.

That would come at the expense of Norfolk farming businesses, said Ms Batters, exposing them to competition from cheaper imports produced to much lower food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards.

“Honestly, an obliteration of the tariff wall would be the single biggest crisis for our industry, because you cannot just open your doors to the EU, you open your doors to the rest of the world – effectively, to the ‘cheap food’ brigade,” she said.

“But this would be imported food that it would be illegal to produce in this country. That is why we are so adamant that it cannot happen, because it would undermine our production in a way we have not seen in decades.”

MORE: With Brexit just 50 days away, how confident are Norfolk farmers about the future?

Ms Batters also urged farmers to ensure viable food production was more prominent in policies including the Agriculture Bill, published in September.

“It is incredibly important for every single one of you to engage with your MP and really force that point,” she said, adding that Norfolk has “hugely influential” senior MPs including Elizabeth Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, and Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis.

“Every county has its own great assets, but probably none more than Norfolk,” she said. “Everything is going on in this country – you really can show everything at scale and not many counties can say that.

“And you are quite unique in your big-hitting politicians and they are in absolutely crucial places.

“You do have a real power base in Norfolk. With the real harsh realities of the immigration policy going forward, trade policy and the multi-annual budgets I would urge you to really use those politicians that you have. Working with your MPs is going to be the only way this is going to work.”

• For more coverage from the Norfolk Farming Conference, see Saturday’s EDP Farm and Country Pages.

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