Defra farm minister Eustice answers your questions on agriculture

Ahead of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this weekend, we invited questions from you and put them to Defra farm minister George Eustice.

From questions on bovine TB, to the future of the AHDB, post-Brexit agricultural policy and the question “How will you make British farmers great again?”, find out how the minister replies.

See also: Green schemes are a no-brainer, says Eustice

Richard Fair, dairy farmer, Cheshire

Q. We are five years into the government’s 25-year plan to eradicate bovine TB in England. Is the plan meeting your expectations and are we still on course to eradicate this disease by 2038?

A. Five years into the strategy, the time is right to reflect on the progress made in achieving TB-free status.

The TB Strategy Review, led by Professor Sir Charles Godfray, is finalising its report, which is due at the end of this month. We envisage that further reviews will take place at five-yearly intervals thereafter. 

The recent figures we have published show reductions in TB cases in the Somerset and Gloucestershire cull areas, with incidence of the disease falling by 50%.

This is evidence that our strategy for dealing with this slow-moving, insidious disease is delivering results. We remain committed to the goal of becoming officially TB-free in England by 2038.

Richard Haddock, farmer and entrepreneur, Devon

Q. Defra has launched a consultation on the future of the AHDB. Are you going to send people out to speak to the people who pay money (farmers, independent retailers, butchers and farm shop owners) to get their views?

A. Our review and consultation is open and anyone can respond. We want to hear from as many levy-payers as possible to understand whether they think the AHDB should continue in their sector and what they think it should prioritise. 

We are already talking with stakeholder bodies and are keen to hear their views about AHDB. We will also host meetings with groups of stakeholders and some levy-payers in London, York and Bristol ahead of the closing date on 9 November.

Our online survey provides a quick and secure way to lodge views and I would encourage everyone to use that facility.   

James Small, sheep and beef farmer, Wiltshire

Q. What steps is the government taking to ensure every farm and rural business has access to a decent broadband service?

A. We know how important a decent broadband connection is to rural communities, which is why we’re rolling out superfast broadband to those deemed ‘not commercially viable’ by industry.

This £1.7bn rollout has so far reached more than 4.5 million premises across the country. As a former farmer in Cornwall, I know the importance of affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband for running a rural business, and the government is committed to making this provision a legal right to everyone by 2020. 

William Emmett, arable farmer, Berkshire

Q. Will Defra accept imports of global food products produced with agrichemicals banned for use in the UK, such as neonicotinoids, after the UK leaves the European Union?

A. We’ve always been clear that the UK will maintain its own high environmental standards in future free trade agreements outside the EU. As part of the regulatory process for pesticides, Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) are set.

These are the highest levels that are likely to be found in food if a pesticide is used according to the legal requirements and are always set at levels that do not give rise to health concerns.

Produce from non-EU countries will be subject to the rules on MRLs in food. These will be set at very low levels unless a non-EU country makes a successful application for an import tolerance to sell produce in the UK and EU.

If produce from other countries contains residues at above the levels permitted, import will not be allowed. Our highest priority will continue to be the protection of people and the environment.

Charles Anyan, arable farmer, Lincolnshire

Q. I consider both the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England not fit for purpose. What assurances can Defra give that its new domestic agricultural policy will be competently administered post-Brexit?

A. Both agencies are making significant changes to how they work with their main customers. The secretary of state and I have been clear that customers need to be prioritised with rural payment schemes. 

As we leave the EU, we have the opportunity to look again at how we can simplify the application process for farmers and land managers as we phase out direct support. 

A key principle for future policies will be to learn from past experiences to ensure administration is efficient, effective but not burdensome. 

Robert Moore, a farmer from Londonderry

Q. The success of any future agricultural policy depends almost entirely on a fully equitable and integrated supply chain. What is the government going to do post-Brexit to ensure this happens?

A. We are seeking powers through the Agriculture Bill to introduce statutory codes of contractual practice, which would apply to processors, abattoirs and other businesses when purchasing agricultural products directly from farmers.  

Statutory codes would mandate that contracts include certain information (such as termination clauses, duration, and pricing information) and set parameters around these details (minimum or maximum duration of termination clauses).

They will provide greater certainty for farmers by ensuring that clear terms and conditions are set out in contracts, and prohibit unfair trading practices. 

Additionally, we are seeking to strengthen data collection powers through the Agriculture Bill in order to improve the availability of data along the supply chain. Improving our capacity to collect, standardise and publish data will ultimately lead to a fairer and more transparent supply chain.

If producers have better access to data they will be better able to manage risks, respond to market conditions and obtain a more equitable share of prices.  

David Butler, mixed farmer, Wiltshire

Q. Will the government seek “standards alignment” policies for imported food products to protect both domestic markets and global biodiversity?

A. The government is proud of the high food safety and animal welfare standards that underpin our high-quality UK produce.

I can assure you that the government has no intention of undercutting the reputation of UK products for quality by lowering our food and animal welfare standards in pursuit of future trade agreements.

We are clear that such agreements must work for consumers, farmers, and businesses in the UK.

Ffinlo Costain, director of Farmwel, Glasgow

Q. Does the minister support the development of a Great British export brand built on quality and sustainability?

A. I want the British brand to be closely associated with heritage and to be trusted and renowned for high standards of animal welfare and food safety.

Individual products, including our two biggest exports, Scotch whisky and Scottish farmed salmon, have long-standing reputations worldwide.

But as UK food and drink exports continue to expand, more and more of our products are being recognised for high standards, taste, quality, safety, animal welfare, sustainability and traceability.

Government and industry are already working in partnership to raise the profile and reputation of British food and drink through the Food is GREAT campaign.

We are therefore well-placed to continue developing a strong UK food and drink brand that takes advantage of growing consumer demand for quality food and drink and ‘western’-style diets in emerging economies.

Will Sherring, agricultural accounts and tax manager, Hertfordshire 

Q. Do you want to make British farmers great again? If so, how are you going to do it?

A. British farming is already great. We know that we have the best farmers in the world, and our food and drink industry contributes £112bn to our economy. 

We have recently introduced the Agriculture Bill, which is our golden opportunity to improve British agriculture.

A new system will reward farmers for providing a range of interventions to deliver clean water, improved soil health, enhanced animal welfare and habitats for farmland birds as well as other environmental benefits.  

At the same time, the bill creates the powers to support investment in new technology on farms to reduce costs and improve profitability and we are introducing powers to improve transparency and fairness in the supply chain so that farmers get a fair share of the value of the food they produce.

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