Farm leaders and environmental campaigners have joined forces to secure a fair deal for British agriculture and the countryside.
New alliances are needed to ensure British farmers can continue to deliver high-quality food at affordable prices for consumers while looking after the environment – including measures to mitigate climate change, believes NFU leader Minette Batters.
Ms Batters was speaking as she launched her campaign to serve a further two years as NFU president.
Her bid to remain leader is unopposed, paving the way for her re-election by the union’s ruling council next month.
“There is a critical need for us to reach out across all political parties – across society – and to really build stronger coalitions with the environmental NGOs,” she told NFU members during a hustings event at Wisley, Surrey.
Farmers face an “extraordinary reset moment” with a completely new agricultural policy due to be introduced after the UK leaves the European Union at the end of this month, said Ms Batters.
It is the most important moment for the industry for 80 years, she added.
Brexit will see direct payments phased out – and replaced by a new support system largely based on rewarding farmers who deliver environmental measures, including protecting soil and water, enhancing the rural environment and combating climate change.
But then NFU and other organisations remain concerned that post-Brexit trade deals with other countries could see British farmers undermined by a flood of cheap food imports produced using methods that would illegal in the UK.
Mrs Batters and Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett have outlined their concerns in a joint letter to Defra secretary Theresa Villiers.
The same high standards must also apply to food imports – not just British food, they warned.
“We cannot have the situation where British farmers may be undercut by food producers operating in other countries to lower environmental, food or animal welfare standards,” said the letter.
CLA – transition scheme
With so many farmers reliant on direct payments for their income, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has also warned that any new system must be properly introduced, rather than rushed in a way that disadvantages British producers.
It wants the seven-year transition scheme to the new environmental land management (ELM) scheme delayed beyond its proposed start in 2021 until a proper adaptation programme is in place – providing grants, advice and training for farmers.
The new policy was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, said CLA president Mark Bridgeman.
But he added: “The vast majority of direct payments should not be removed until individual farmers are able to take up the new scheme.”
The government says it remains committed to maintaining high standards post Brexit.
A spokesman said: “The government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK.”