‘Food security is not something we should take for granted’ – NFU president Minette Batters’ action call to Norfolk farmers
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
The nation's most senior farming representative urged her East Anglian colleagues to grasp a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put food production at the heart of new countryside policies.
The nation's most senior farming representative has urged her East Anglian colleagues to grasp a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put food production at the heart of new countryside policies.
Minette Batters was making her first official visit to Norfolk and Suffolk since being elected president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU).
She spoke to union members at Barnham Broom Hotel, outside Norwich, to discuss the government's consultation paper on how farming and the environment should be regulated and funded after the UK leaves the EU – and the confines of its Common Agricultural Policy.
And, with much of the focus falling on ecology as part of Defra secretary Michael Gove's pursuit of a 'Green Brexit', Ms Batters said it was crucial for farmers to make their views known to convince policy-makers of the importance of food production in future farming policies.
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'It is essential, and it is not just about farmers,' she said. 'It is vital that people who value the countryside, and who recognise the importance of the rural economy, that they make the case for farming, and really speak up for farming.
'I think the worry for me is that food security is not taken seriously in Westminster, partly because we just take our food for granted. What we are saying is that food production should sit at the heart of a new policy. Food security is not something we should take for granted in this very volatile world we live in.'
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During the meeting, Nick von Westenholz, the NFU's director of EU and international trade, outlined Defra's suggested options for phasing out the EU's current system of land-based subsidy payments, in favour of a new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which rewards farmers for providing 'public goods'.
Those public goods, he said, fall under five categories: environmental enhancement; animal and plant health and welfare; public access; productivity and competitiveness; and resilience, traditional farming and uplands. He added that paying for the environment was 'clearly front and centre' in Defra's planning.
But Ms Batters said there should be a much greater focus on a secure and profitable food supply.
'My plea to government and politicians is to treat Brexit for agriculture as a business decision,' she said. 'This is not about driving a social policy or just an environmental policy. It is about looking at the business of British agriculture and making solid business decision for the Brexit challenge.
'We want thriving successful businesses that will continue to reinvest in these very rural counties like Norfolk and Suffolk. And we don't want to be in a place where we are dealing with 'National Park' policies that do not reflect the importance of food production.'
Questions and concerns raised by Norfolk farmers at the meeting included asking why the holistic benefits of mixed farming had not been recognised in Defra's command paper, and why the protection of uplands had been identified for potential funding, but not East Anglia's equally-valuable lowland grazing areas.
Charlie MacNicol, of the Stody Estate in north Norfolk, also said a focus on rewarding environmental improvements in the new ELMS could unfairly penalise progressive farmers who have already achieved these goals through agri-environment and stewardship schemes.
'If you are have never done any stewardship, this is a chance to replace BPS (the EU-funded Basic Payment Scheme) with money from the new environmental scheme,' he said. 'But if you have been in stewardship for a long time, you are maxed out in what you can do with the land – so if you took BPS away and replace it with ELMS we are going to be penalised for being so environmentally-focused.'
Norfolk NFU chairman Tony Bambridge added his voice to the urgent calls for the region's farmers to join the consultation.
He said: 'Defra has said the NFU has a vested interest in farming – surprise, surprise – so they want to hear from individuals. And so it is particularly important that you all respond.
'In the rest of these meetings, the world and his wife has a view on how you are going to farm, and how you are going to look after the countryside. So it is important you put your views across.'
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Following the consultation meeting, Ms Batters travelled to the Elveden Estate to see how the 3,300ha farm near Thetford combines large-scale commercial agriculture with promoting biodiversity.
After discussing potential policy changes with the union leader, farm manager Andrew Francis said he disagreed with the idea of a subsidy cap which affected only the biggest recipients of direct farm payments – and that Defra's policy proposals did not recognise the landscape-scale benefits which the largest estates could bring to wildlife.
'Some of the rhetoric is quite contradictory,' he said. 'They say they are going to target the receivers of the biggest area payment cheques, but at the same time we want enhanced and improved environmental standards across the piece, and we also want to encourage farmers to work together on a landscape scale. But our scale helps us to manage the landscape for wildlife. Big shouldn't be a bad word.
'At the moment, it is fairly straight forward – whether it is the Environment Agency or the Rivers Trust, or whoever they are, they can fairly easily get a big business on board by speaking to just one person, and make a massive impact across a large landscape.
'But if you have 20 people to deal with, and you have two neighbours who are not in the same mindset, then how will you deal with the edge effects? The ecology does not know whether it is one, two, or 100 people dealing with the landscape they live in, so I don't see why we should be penalised.
'Change for change's sake is not necessarily a good thing. We are not saying: 'It must remain the same, or else'. We are more open-minded than that. But what needs to happen has got to be fair. If there is pain to be had then it needs to be incrementally shared by all.
'My personal view, and the business view, is that I don't understand why you would put a cap on for anything other than a politically-driven motive.
'If we were working in a fully non-subsidised sector across the board, then fair enough, we will compete. But it has got to be fair and even.'
• For more on Ms Batters' visit and the consultation, see Saturday's EDP Farm and Country pages.
• To respond to the consultation, go to the Defra consultation website before the deadline of May 8.