Farming leaders in East Anglia have welcomed the prime minister's commitments on food security - but warned a bigger budget is needed to meet the industry's goals.

Rishi Sunak pledged he will “never take our food security for granted” as he outlined a support package for farmers in a speech at the National Farmers' Union (NFU) Conference in Birmingham.

His announcements included a doubling of funding to £220m for technology and innovation grants to help with productivity investments such as robotics and roof-top solar.

He said there will be cuts to “red tape” around permitted development rights to make it easier for farmers to diversify their revenue by creating farm shops and commercial spaces.

Eastern Daily Press: Prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a question and answer session with National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Minette Batters during the NFU conference at in BirminghamPrime minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a question and answer session with National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Minette Batters during the NFU conference at in Birmingham (Image: PA)

And he said the government will publish an annual "food security index" in the spring - an issue which is "back at the top of the agenda" as a result of global factors including climate change and soaring costs of fuel and fertiliser since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Sunak praised the industry and repeatedly reiterated the government’s commitment to maintain support for English farming at pre-Brexit levels of £2.4bn a year.

The prime minister said almost half of farmers in England are now receiving support through new post-Brexit environmental payment schemes including the sustainable farming incentive (SFI).

Payment rates were increased by an average of 10pc earlier this year, and Mr Sunak told the conference that the scheme's management payment is also now being doubled to £2,000.

Mr Sunak said: “While the importance of farmers will never change – farming is going through its biggest change in a generation.

“And as you do so, this government will be by your side."

He added: “We’ll never take our food security for granted.”

Eastern Daily Press: Charles Hesketh, NFU regional policy manager for the East of EnglandCharles Hesketh, NFU regional policy manager for the East of England (Image: NFU)

Charles Hesketh, the NFU's East of England regional policy manager, said these assurances were a "step in the right direction" - but warned the industry needs more action and a bigger budget.

"These are reassuring words, but it is the next step we look forward to hearing," he said.

"In terms of the food security index reporting - we are pleased to hear this is going to be an annual thing, but what will they do with that information? That is the big question now.

"The prime minister was also keen to keep promising us that the £2.4bn budget is available, and although this is welcome, we need to make sure that £2.4bn is spent.

"This figure was first agreed pre-Brexit, pre-Covid, pre-Ukraine - and to meet the environmental aspirations of the current government and to produce more food we actually need around £4bn.

"So we need an uptick in that budget, and all eyes will be on what election manifestos all the parties will put together."

Earlier in the conference, Mr Sunak praised departing NFU president Minette Batters for being a "formidable champion of our farmers" after she received a standing ovation for her emotional final conference speech following six years at the head of the union.

The prime minister's speech came in the wake of polling which found Labour had narrowly overtaken the Tories among countryside voters, who also felt neither main party understood rural communities.

Labour's shadow environment secretary Steve Reed accused the Conservative government of undermining British farming.

He said: “They put up trade barriers that blocked food exports and let energy bills soar out of control, crippling producers and putting thousands out of business.”

He added: “Labour will give farmers their future back.

“We will tear down export barriers by seeking a veterinary agreement with the EU, boost jobs by buying more local food for hospitals and prisons, and cut energy bills by producing clean energy right here in the UK.”