Farmers are being urged to make one last big push to respond to Defra plans for British agriculture after the UK leaves the European Union – including proposals to phase out direct payments.
Just days remain until the 8 May deadline for responses to the government consultation.
Farm leaders have warned that the UK is on the cusp of a pivotal moment for the sector that government ministers must get right if the industry is to thrive.
Defra plans include proposals to replace direct payments with a new system of support largely based on rewarding farmers who undertake environmental measures.
Farmers are being urged to have their say to ensure that food production isn’t sidelined.
NFU president Minette Batters said: “Food production is at the heart of everything we do. While there are a whole host of endeavours we turn our hand to – energy provision, rural tourism, business services, environmental management – if we’re not producing food, we’re not farmers.”
She added: “Not only is it important that this is recognised, but also that we ensure, in an uncertain future, we don’t take any steps that undermine those high British food and farming standards – standards we know the British people value as much as we do.”
Food imports should also be scrutinised, said Ms Batters. “It would be short-sighted to pursue a policy that reduces British food production and means this country relies increasingly on food produced elsewhere in the world where we have little control over how it was produced.”
Industry leaders say the farming voice must not be lost amid thousands of responses expected to be submitted by campaigners who believe the environment should be prioritised above food production.
The Country Land and Business Association has also urged its members to respond.
The CLA says it supports a policy that balances both profitable food production and environmental work, but has cautioned against a poorly devised transition towards the new system.
CLA president Tim Breitmeyer said: “It will only be achieved through a carefully planned transition that gives all farm businesses the time and the certainty they need to adapt and prepare for a new policy that has been rigorously tested and has broad support.”
High standards must be properly recognised
Essex farmer Tom Bradshaw says growers will be left “fighting with our hands tied behind our back” unless the government properly recognises that UK crops are produced to high standards without access to controversial technologies used overseas.
Mr Bradshaw, who is also chairman of the NFU combinable crops board, says the government should reward British farmers for delivering a “public good” if it expects them to compete against food imports produced using methods that are illegal in the UK.
The lack of access to technologies such as neonicotinoids and genetic modification should be deemed an environmental or public good because it isn’t rewarded by the marketplace, says Mr Bradshaw. “I think that should be recognised in a new policy.”
Like neonicotinoids, GM crops are banned in the UK but some three million tonnes of GM soyabeans are still imported annually – which Mr Bradshaw says undermines the domestic protein market. “If we are not careful, we are exporting our environmental and moral conscious overseas,” he adds.
Lower prices put pressure on farmers
Suggestions that food prices could fall by 10% following a planned merger between supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Asda highlight the need for farmers to get a fair deal from the supply chain, say sheep producers.
The National Sheep Association says this loss of competition in the marketplace – and the expectation that farmers should produce more food for less money – is not in the long-term interests of producers, nor of society at large.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker says: “It may result in reduced prices, but all this will lead to is less realisation of the value of food and a host of things being lost that may be invisible today but will become very visible at some stage in the future.
“If we end up putting pressure on the bulk of our sheep farming families and businesses we will end up with a very different countryside and rural community – and the danger is that it won’t be noticed until it is lost.”
Certainty needed over trade and labour
Growers and livestock producers are already restructuring their businesses amid ongoing uncertainty over access to labour and the UK’s trading relationship with other countries.
Despite repeated lobbying, the government still refuses to introduce a scheme that the NFU says would encourage overseas workers to help on UK farms during busy periods – prompting some British vegetable growers, such as G’s Fresh, to move production abroad.
Last year, UK Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that British livestock farmers could face tariffs of 30-40% if the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal. Although some consider such a scenario unlikely, others don’t want to take the risk.
Restructuring livestock producers include Richard Tudor, who won the Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year Award in 2016. Mr Tudor, who farms at Llysun Farm, Llanerfyl, near Welshpool, is replacing his beef herd with 300 dairy cows in a bid to stay profitable.
How to have your say
The government wants all farmers to have their say on its proposals for the industry. Defra says all responses will be considered ahead of an Agriculture Bill published later this year.
The deadline for responses is 11.45pm on Tuesday 8 May.
Defra wants quality responses – not just quantity
Defra secretary Michael Gove says it is important that the consultation is as broad as possible – but the quality as well as quantity of responses will help refine the government’s proposals.
“It is not just the volume, it is also the weight and the thought that has gone [into responses] that helps us to shape and to change policy,” Mr Gove told farmers attending consultation workshop co-hosted by Defra and the NFU on the outskirts of Coventry on Monday (30 April).
Leaving the EU meant the UK was able to decide its own policies for agriculture and the environment, said Mr Gove. This coincided with growing interest in how food is produced, where it comes from and what it does to those who eat it, he said.
There was also increasing interest and appreciation of the environment. Mr Gove said: “That growing interest in food overall can be harnessed in food overall can be harnessed in a progressive way that helps those of us who are involved directly in food production.”
Mr Gove said he was “taken aback” by the 80,000 responses submitted to a previous Defra consultation on safeguarding the African elephant by restricting the ivory trade. Farm leaders believe this consultation could attract even more responses.