Keeping farming at the forefront of the political agenda is vital as the government moves to slash budgets, shadow farm minister Hilary Benn has warned.

In what was likely to be his final appearance as shadow DEFRA minister at the Labour Party conference in Manchester on Monday (27 September), Mr Benn said British agriculture needed to be kept at the front of government policy debate.

He said impeding cuts to DEFRA’s budgets were “concerning” and urged department minister Caroline Spelman not to hit agri-environment schemes.

“We are all worried about the impact spending cuts could have on agriculture, particularly on environmental schemes and investment in research,” Mr Benn told Farmers Weekly.

“We do need to look at budgets, but the fundamental agreement about agriculture is if you make cuts when times are tough the damage to the natural environment can be quite difficult to reverse at a later date.”

Speaking to delegates at an NFU fringe event, Mr Benn added: “Farming is a hugely important industry.

“It’s our biggest manufacturing industry, it’s hugely important to the future of our work and the environmental work farmers do plays a key role in that.

“It is concerning environmental schemes could be hit.

“I want British farming to continue to be successful and the Labour party is committed to working with the NFU and the industry to achieve that.”

NFU President Peter Kendall paid tribute to Mr Benn, who is widely tipped to take a more senior role in the Labour cabinet after leading the campaign to get Ed Miliband elected as party leader.

Thanking him for the work he had done in moving farming up the political agenda, Mr Kendall said Mr Benn, who was DEFRA minister for almost three years under the Labour government, had “great things ahead of him”.

“From the supermarket ombudsman, to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment and issues around food security, there has been significant change and you had to push for that across government,” he said.

“If this is a parting shot, then on behalf of the industry a massive thank you because it was a change in language and a massive move forward.”