Farmers and environmentalists need to work together, not against each other, if agriculture is to retain the £3bn in taxpayer support it currently receives once the UK leaves the European Union.
Addressing an NFU fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats party conference in Brighton this week, food and rural affairs spokeswoman Baroness Parminter said while things were improving in terms of environmental protection, there was no room for complacency.
“It is so important that there is common ground between the NFU and the environmental groups, talking about a new way of farming that produces food in an environmentally sensitive way,” she said. “I urge them to work together more closely, otherwise the money is going to be lost.”
The debate about food production versus wildlife enhancement had been highlighted in the recent State of Nature report from the RSPB, which blamed farming for wildlife declines.
Proud of farming’s contribution
However, NFU president Meurig Raymond said he was proud of what farming had delivered for the countryside over the past 20 years.
He said maintaining this contribution in future depended on developing a new post-Brexit farm policy that ensured farming was profitable. “When they are making money, farmers will invest in their farms and they will invest in the environment,” he said.
He was concerned that, if too much emphasis was put on the environment alone, UK food self-sufficiency would decline too, and more would be imported from places such as South America, which would destroy the environment to step up production.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters also stressed that it was important to sell the food security message to the public in a language they could understand.
“Our surveys show 86% of the public don’t even understand what food security means,” she said. “We have an opportunity over the next three years to really showcase the fantastic industry we have.
“We have 65 million people in this country, rising sharply. We are an island nation in a volatile world. Food, energy and water resource is absolutely crucial for every single one of us.”
But Lib Dem Defra spokesman Mark Williams said he was concerned by the potential loss of direct income support as a new farm policy was developed.
“The farmers I represent run small family farms that are at the heart of the rural community. That [BPS] cheque, when it finally comes, is the difference between life and death for those family farms.
“The farming voice needs to be heard in government in a way that it has never been heard before.”
Lack of resource
Baroness Parminter also stressed Defra’s lack of resource to secure a good outcome for agriculture.
“We only have to think of the massive cuts that Defra has suffered during recent budget rounds. Civil servants are desperately trying to understand what Brexit means and what is going to replace CAP – and there is just not the capacity to do this.”
On regulation, Baroness Parminter said the outcome would depend on the extent to which the UK wanted access to the single market.
But it was wrong to think of regulation as a “bad thing” per se. “I believe regulations are good news for farmers. It means we can trade on a level playing field and it means the standards we [the Lib Dems] want to see will get delivered.”