Food import concerns dominate debate at online farming show

The need for greater transparency on imported grain standards was discussed at the Cereals Live 2020

The need for greater transparency on imported grain standards was discussed at the Cereals Live 2020 online show. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Concerns over the transparency of international trade and the standards applied to food imports topped the agenda as a major agricultural show moved online during the coronavirus lockdown.

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters spoke at an online webinar during Cereals Live 202

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters spoke at an online webinar during Cereals Live 2020. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The Cereals event, a technical showcase for East Anglia’s arable industry, was reimagined as Cereals Live following the cancellation of the exhibition planned for Chrishall Grange in Cambridgeshire on June 10 and 11.

It gave farmers the chance to take virtual tours of the latest plant breeding, agri-tech and crop health innovations, and see machinery developments in precision farming, robotics, drones and soil scanning.

But it was also a platform for debate on industry challenges including Covid-19, climate change, post-Brexit agriculture and environment policies, and the need to preserve the sector’s competitiveness in trade deals.

The show’s two-day seminar programme became a series of webinars, including one entitled “New era, new challenges, new opportunities” with speakers including Defra secretary Victoria Prentis and National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters.

Defra farming minister Victora Prentis spoke at an online webinar during the Cereals Live event

Defra farming minister Victora Prentis spoke at an online webinar during the Cereals Live event - Credit: Archant

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More than 700 people joined the event, and took part in a poll which revealed 42pc thought the biggest challenge facing agriculture was drought and weather conditions, with 22pc most worried about how new agricultural policies would impact their business. Only 15pc said Covid-19 was the biggest challenge.

Ms Batters reiterated the NFU’s key concern that the Agriculture Bill currently progressing through Parliament must contain a legal guarantee to ensure imported foods are held to the same environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards as British farmers must meet – a call which had won the backing of more than 900,000 petition signatories by the first day of the show.

But she also asked the government and supply chains for greater transparency around the standards associated with imported grain as the UK seeks new trade deals around the world.

READ MORE: Don’t allow trade deals to undermine our food standards, plead Norfolk farmersWhile UK grain producers are held to account by both regulatory and farm assurance standards, she said there is a “significant lack of information” about the standards applied to imported grain, meaning trade policy could allow imports to arrive produced using chemicals that are illegal here – including oilseed rape which is being “massively undermined” by imports produced using neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the UK.

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She said: “Over the past 10 years grain imports into the UK have almost doubled, yet our own farmers have no information about how the product they are competing against has been produced. This has caused a serious knock in confidence for British grain producers.

“As we embark on new trading opportunities around the world, it is essential that a level playing field is established. Many farmers have been struggling to grow key crops since the ban of products like neonicotinoids and chlorothalonil, and now face a double whammy of a trade policy that allows food into the UK which has been produced using the very products that are now illegal here. Yes, the domestic grain market needs imports to meet public demand, but transparency is crucial if we are to ensure British producers aren’t undercut by sub-standard imports.

“We also have to consider our climate change responsibility. The government needs to show it is serious about tackling our greenhouse gas footprint, not just on what we produce, but on what we consume. Transparency around food imports is the first step to ensuring we don’t undermine our ambition to be world leaders in sustainable, nature-friendly food.”

READ MORE: MPs ‘missed opportunity’ to secure vital safeguards for food standards, say farmersMs Batters also said it was important for the farming sector to “own the evidence” to prove its sustainable farming credentials during the government’s seven-year phase-out of EU subsidies in favour of a new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme which will reward farmers for providing “public goods” including environmental features and climate change mitigation.

In a pre-recorded presentation, Mrs Prentis said the new ELM scheme would have three key components.

“Firstly, there will be a sustainable farming incentives,” she said. “This will be open to any farmer, and the more who take it up the better, so we will make sure it is worthwhile to take part. That means things like integrated pest management, sensitive management of hedgerows and ways to maintain soil health will all be rewarded.

“Secondly there will be a local environmental tier. This will provide incentives for interventions such as habitat creation and improving biodiversity, tree planting, and natural flood management. Finally there will be a larger landscape scale tier to support woodland creation, peatland restoration and other potential changes to land use.”

The minister also repeated the government’s promise not to undermine food standards during trade negotiations.

“Any future trade deal must work for our consumers, but also for our farmers,” she said. “In all of our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental, animal welfare and food standards in any way. It is something we are completely committed to.

“The level of interest and debate on this subject has shown how important food security and food standards are to the general public, and I think that is one of the heartening take-outs from this [coronavirus] pandemic.”

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