Increasing food production need not be at the cost of the environment, according to DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn.

Speaking at a meeting with Dartmoor farmers in Devon on 12 August, Mr Benn insisted there was not a conflict between boosting food security and improving the environment.

“It is not a competition – the future has to be sustainable production.”

“More targeted fertiliser application, anaerobic digesters and woodchip boilers were all ways in which farmers could reduce their Carbon footprint without jeopardising production,” he said.

“This is the future, and it’s happening already in the UK.”

However, Mr Benn did recognise the difficulties facing dairy producers and upland farmers in particular, and admitted that genetic modification could play a part in future farming techniques.

“We need to look at all the means we have available to feed people – but society will have a choice.”

Mel Hall, south west NFU director, said farmers welcomed the opportunity to talk to Mr Benn, but still had concerns about producing food under environmental constraints, such as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and disease threats like TB. “They are not sure of the messages – there needs to be more cohesion.”

Progressive, viable farms produced safe food and biodiversity “but at the end of the day we’ve got to produce more out of less – no doubt compromises will have to be made”.

Environmental aspirations had to be realistic, and more money was required through the Rural Development Programme to help farmers comply with NVZ regulations, she said. In addition, a supermarket Ombudsman and further action against TB were essential to help farmers become profitable enough to invest in the future.