NFU deputy president Minette Batters outlines future challenges for Norfolk farmers

NFU deputy presdient Minette Batters. Picture: Matthew Usher.

NFU deputy presdient Minette Batters. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

On her first visit to Norfolk, NFU deputy president Minette Batters spoke to the EDP about the major issues facing East Anglia's farmers.

Farmers must fight to safeguard vital crop protection tools and communicate better with consumers to make their case amid an increasingly-vociferous green lobby.

That was the message from Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union, who made her first trip to Norfolk this week to speak at the NFU annual county meeting at Easton and Otley College.

Mrs Batters has a 300-strong beef herd in Wiltshire and has worked within her industry and with retailers to develop the Ladies in Beef and Great British Beef Week initiatives, although she is determined to represent all NFU members in all sectors.

She said the NFU now had a clear strategic vision for UK farming – outlined in the union's 2015 general election 'manifesto' – which urges the government to build a stronger foundation for future growth and remove 'burdensome regulation', while seeking assurances that available science will be applied in the field for the best benefit of all.

Mrs Batters said a major issue was how to prevent chemical pesticides being banned by EU policy-makers, and how to counter a growing environmental lobby – particularly following last year's ban on neonicotinoid seed dressings after concerns were raised about their impact on bee declines.

On pesticides:

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'In 2001 we had 850 'actives' in the crop protection toolbox, but we only have half that now. Making sure the science in the lab gets to the fields is very important and we have got this green challenge now which is changing the focus of our lobbying.

'On the neonicotinoid debate, I asked Oliver Letwin (the minister for government policy): 'How did we go from a 'green light' situation to a 'red light'? He said it was the 1.5m emails sent to the prime minister, so the prime minister was not interested in the evidence base. He was interested in the numbers. That sums up the challenge we face going forward.

'It is a similar issue to the one we face with bovine TB, which has become such a toxic subject.

'We need to use our on-side NGOs (non-governmental organisations) like LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and GWCT (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust). We need to work with them and with all the science institutes to get what is happening into the press, because they are very interested in food and we need to engage with that.

'There is a great deal of misconception and a complete lack of understanding of our farmers. We seem to be going down this route that food production is seen as bad and covered in pesticides. These are challenging times, but we have got to stick with the positive and sell this great industry to the public.'

On communication and PR:

'Going forward, my concerns are how we maintain the good PR story. Farmers are not brilliant at communicating. The NFU has got to be able to communicate the old strapline of 'produce more and impact less'. If we can get more farmers out there championing their products it would help.

'If we want to hang on to all these 'actives' we have got to show that we have a vibrant biodiversity alongside it.

'People talk about 'making space for nature' but my father was involved in topping grassland for set-aside in the 1980s and it became nothing more than a prairie. Nothing was living there.

'So you cannot just make space for nature. Those pollinator strips don't just appear. They need to be maintained and re-planted, and so we need to explain there is a value to that. And we have got to be innovative about how we do it. Social media has been a game-changer and politicians are facing a really united force with those green NGOs working together to influence policy.'

On public procurement:

'Getting more British food into schools is so important in getting children understanding and valuing how it is produced.

'The Olympic model was brilliant – it was a mandatory Red Tractor (food produced to British farm assurance standards) approach, and it would be great to get that rolled out in our schools and hospitals. There is no reason why it shouldn't happen. The schools have got very tight budgets to work to, but we have got to teach children how their food is produced, and we don't currently have that joined-up approach of food and farming and children and education. It should be intrinsically linked.

'I think the secretary of state (Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss) has a massive opportunity with her background in education to join up the elusive dots.'

On GM (genetically-modified) foods:

'I have really enjoyed doing the visits to the science institutes at NIAB and Rothamsted, and I worry that throughout Europe we are getting left behind. Investment in these sciences will go to the States if we're not careful. In this country, we have always been at the forefront and I hope we will stay there. The new EU agriculture commissioner (Phil Hogan) gives us hope of a more pro-active view on GM. If we are going to care for the environment and if we are going to produce more from less, then GM is the future.

'I would be looking to this part of the world to be the innovation hub. We have all the science institutes here in East Anglia and it would be madness not to be working with them.'

On bovine tuberculosis (TB):

'We now have a 25-year plan to eradicate bovine TB which we have never had before. It is a fresh approach and it is about using every tool, so that means tighter control measures, vaccinating badgers (which carry the disease) in the 'edge' area between high and low-risk areas to create a firewall, and taking out the endemic disease in the high-risk area.

'Eradication is about working with the farmers, the science and the diagnostics. Farmers in this part of the world want to know that people bringing in cattle are doing it responsibly. All cattle coming from a high-risk areas would have to be tested before they come out, but the new measures would include post-movement testing and quarantines – that is starting to come in, and it is part of the new rules. 'The other thing we need is assured finishing units (AFUs) – fields that are sealed so they cannot affect other cattle or wildlife. In East Anglia we would be looking to have more AFUs so there is no risk to the wildlife in this part of the world.

'If we don't beat this disease, it will be the end of livestock production as we know it in this country. So we have to get it right.'