Hilary Benn has underlined his achievements as DEFRA Secretary in what could be his last speech to NFU conference.

With a general election less than three month’s away, Mr Benn acknowledged that the government’s relationship with farmers had not always been easy.

But more united the government and the industry than divided it, he told delegates at Birmingham’s Hilton Metropole Hotel on Tuesday (23 February).

This included the need for a successful, profitable agricultural sector.

It is the third time Mr Benn has addressed the annual NFU conference.

In a wide-ranging speech lasting 20 minutes, he covered topics including farm payments, food labelling, CAP reform and animal disease measures.

But he remained unmoved in response to calls for the government to sanction a badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis.

On the issue of farm payments, Mr Benn pledged to discuss with farm leaders the findings the government’s review of the Rural Payments Agency.

“When the review reports with its recommendations, we will sit down with you and listen to your specific ideas about what more can be done.”

But progress was already being made, Mr Benn added.

This year, the Rural Payments Agency had met its target of making 75% of single payments to farmers by the end of January 2010.

The agency was also on target to meet its target of making 90% of payments by the end of March, said Mr Benn.

Over the past year, the agency had updated 100,000 maps. And farmers would be able to make 2010 payment applications online.

The government had also listened and lobbied in Brussels on issues that had benefited British farmers, said Mr Benn.

Although it had been unable to prevent the introduction of electronic identification (EID) of sheep, it had managed to secure important concessions.

“By working together, we have managed to get a system in place that will make implementation easier than it would otherwise have been for livestock farmers.”

Lobbying had also stopped the unjustifiable removal of some important spray products and the introduction of arbitrary targets, Mr Benn said.

On the issue of laying hens, the government would keep pressing to ensure all member states kept to the 2012 ban on eggs from caged hens.

“We are not backing down on this. But if others do then British egg producers must not be put at a disadvantage for leading the way.

“If necessary, eggs from cages that don’t meet that date should not be allowed into the UK.”

The launch of a new code of practice covering country of origin labelling for pork products would benefit consumers and farmers, said Mr Benn.

Consumers had the right to be sure that if a label said “British” then that’s where the animal was born, reared, milked or slaughtered.

“That’s what we’re both fighting for in Europe. You told me you wanted a level playing field at home. I think that’s fair.”

This year would see talks stepped up on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy after 2013, Mr Benn added

The state of public finances across Europe and the need to get the world trading its way out of recession would have a big impact on CAP reform.

Priorities agreed in the past would help reform in the future.

“While butter mountains melted and wine lakes drained away, the permanence of our countryside needs and deserves investment.”

Reformed Pillar 2 payments would ensure farmers were rewarded for providing public benefits where the market didn’t.

This would be increasingly important alongside food production.

British farmers already recognised the importance of protecting the countryside.

A record wheat harvest had been achieved in 2008 yet at the same time, some 6m hectares of mixed farmland was under environmental schemes.

Farmers were leading a transformation in the countryside, said Mr Benn

“The Campaign for the Farmed Environment has brought farmers, the government and conservation groups together to do is was right – by farming and by the environment.”

The government had listened too on food security and changed its approach to recognise the importance of strong domestic food production.

“Our food security and our food supply cannot be taken for granted any more. That’s why we do need to grow more – and we need to grow it with less.”

Bringing British production and consumption closer together would boost both. But progress needed the right approach from government and input from farmers.

On animal health, Mr Benn acknowledged that bovine TB was probably the biggest issue over which farmers and the government disagreed.

The government’s refusal to sanction a badger cull to combat the disease was based on science, Mr Benn said.

“I realise that most of you, if not all of you, believe my decision not to cull was the wrong one, but I stand by it.”

But the government would continue to monitor badger culling trials in Wales and the results of a badger vaccine project starting this summer in England.

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