DEFRA needs to move food production up its lists of priorities and not focus so much on climate change and the environment, according to NFU president Peter Kendall.

Addressing journalists at the NFU’s Royal Show press breakfast on Thursday (3 July), Mr Kendall said the time had come to redress the balance.

“The pendulum has swung too far towards environmental and other targets,” he said. “We accept the need for strong environmental responsibility, but that has to sit alongside the need for a clear cut focus on the importance of productive agriculture. It is quite possible for the two to go hand in hand.”

Food production

Mr Kendall said DEFRA needed to negotiate a new Public Service Agreement (PSA) with the Treasury for productive agriculture.

Currently DEFRA’s two PSA targets, which have to be met to secure its funding, relate to climate change and the environment. At a time when food security dominates the political and media agenda, it was time for food production to be added as an objective.

“Incredibly, we have no PSA for productive agriculture at DEFRA in the current spending review, which runs until 2011,” he said.

The NFU president added that, while the global dynamic had changed, all too often the messages coming out of government focused on the problems of the past instead of the challenges of the future. There was a “lack of coherence” in the messages coming out of government.

Waste

“We have an astonishing debate going on over the future of set-aside, with the Prime Minister commenting that the EU must take action on the elements of the CAP that raise the cost of food, and DEFRA discussing proposals which would take yet more land out of production.”

This year’s tightening up of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme was dictated by the politics of immigration instead of the need to protect domestic food production, Mr Kendall added. Meanwhile tens of thousands of productive cattle were going to waste while DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn continued to prevaricate about bovine TB.

“The agenda has moved on, and yet DEFRA is not moving with it,” he said.

Mr Kendall also criticised the supermarkets for engaging in price wars to bring the price of food down for consumers.

Driving down prices to suppliers was sending the wrong signals to the farming community, as low prices didn’t encourage greater output, he said. Retailers still had big margins to play with, he claimed.

He added: “The notion that we are going to have better food security by driving prices down is absurd.”