10 things Defra could do now to ease the farm crisis

Dairy cows in a field

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Urgent issues facing farmers must not be neglected as Defra sets about developing a 25-year strategy for agriculture, industry leaders have warned.

Defra secretary Liz Truss brought together 80 food and farming representatives last week to help devise a long-term plan that will set out how the UK can grow more, buy more and sell more British food. If all goes well, the strategy will be launched before the end of the year.

10 immediate challenges facing farming

1. The fight against bovine TB

Almost two years have passed since pilot badger culls started in Somerset and Gloucestershire, but there is still no timetable to roll out culling to other hotspots.

2. Access to plant protection products

Overregulation has seen half the active substances available to farmers withdrawn since 2001, according to the Agricultural Industries Confederation, with more products under threat.

3. The milk price crisis

Defra should convene a summit of producers, retailers and processors to find a way forward through the milk price slump, the Tenant Farmers’ Association has suggested.

4. Easing planning restrictions

The time taken to get planning permission – and refusals when it comes to larger-scale farms – continue to be cited as a barrier to development for many farmers.

5. Fair access to water

Growers who rely on irrigation fear they could lose out from the biggest reforms to the water abstraction licensing system for more than
50 years.

6. Employing overseas workers

Fruit and vegetable growers face an uncertain labour supply since the demise of the Seasonal Workers Scheme, which allowed overseas workers to help out on farms.

7. Prompt payments to farmers

Farm leaders have called for a “plan B” in case BPS payments are delayed this winter after the Rural Payments Agency reverted to paper-based applications.

8. Carcass-splitting rules

Sheep producers battling a slump in prices believe simplifying rules requiring carcasses to be split from lambs older than 12 months would help boost the sector.

9. Ensuring supermarket fair play

Producers continue to feel squeezed for profits, yet the groceries code adjudicator does not cover indirect suppliers – the middlemen between farms and supermarkets.

10. Faster rural broadband

The Country Land & Business Association wants a minimum speed of 10Mbps to all rural areas – including the last 5% – so farms can realise their economic potential.

“By championing the latest technology, building skills and creating jobs and apprenticeships we will create a stronger brand for British food and drink that will see our quality produce enjoyed at home and exported around the globe,” said Ms Truss ahead of the event.

See also: Farm strategy is early priority for Defra

The food and farming industry was already an economic powerhouse, worth more than £100bn annually – more than the automotive and aerospace industries combined – and supporting one in eight jobs, she told listeners at Nobel House, Westminster.

NFU vice-president Guy Smith, who attended the meeting, said the union was keen to be involved in discussions.

But it was also important to remember that many farmers had more immediate concerns than a long-term strategy – including a struggle with low cashflows.

Mr Smith said he was pleased the government was recognising the importance of agriculture to the national economy.

But he added: “I don’t want politicians to get distracted by grand 25-year plans when there are things they can be doing here and now to help farm businesses.”

More immediate challenges included effective progress in the fight against bovine TB, access to cost-saving plant protection products, ensuring growers had the necessary access to water, and making prompt BPS payments to farmers in December.

Some industry leaders have also voiced disquiet at Defra’s insistence that the strategy is industry-led.

They believe it would be better if Defra and the farming sector were full and equal partners in a government-led strategy.

Mr Smith said: “We have called for strategic, long-term thinking on agriculture but, in the current climate, resolving the immediate challenges are more important.

“There are things the government can set in motion now that certainly don’t need 25-year plans.”

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers’ Association, said: “It is important to look short and long – and I have no problem with the government looking at both.

“But there have been various initiatives over the past five years and we must avoid the 25-year plan becoming a smokescreen that overshadows them.”

These included AgriTech Strategy, which Mr Dunn said was only part-way through; the 2011 Farming Regulation Task Force report, which sought to reduce unnecessary red tape; and the 2013 Future of Farming report, which sought to encourage new entrants into agriculture.

Country Land & Business Association policy director Christopher Price also called on Defra to implement findings from those three initiatives – as well as recommendations from the government’s 2014 Bonfield report to increase public procurement of British food.

“These are all areas that the new strategy doesn’t need to revisit,” said Mr Price.

More immediately, the government should also speed up rural broadband, ease planning restrictions and ensure there was not a “disconnect” between agriculture and environmental resources, such as soil and water, he said.

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