Farmers in Yorkshire attended meetings held by the NFU this week to discuss the command paper published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A consultation on its contents closes on May 8.
The paper outlines how Defra plans to change the way land is used to better promote “health and harmony”. In the foreword, Environment Secretary Michael Gove says Brexit is a chance to design “a more rational, and sensitive agriculture policy which promotes environmental enhancement, supports profitable food production and contributes to a healthier society”.
Mr Roberts, who addressed attendees at one of the NFU’s consultation meetings this mid-week, spoke to Country Week at the NFU’s regional headquarters in York and said that his own biggest concern about Defra’s paper is a lack of focus on food production.
“I have some real concerns. I think the single biggest one for me is about the lack of narrative in it around food production,” Mr Roberts said.
“What is the role of British farmers? It is to feed an urbanised population that can’t feed itself. It is to produce quality food and put more British food on British plates going forward and I absolutely get the environmental public good stuff, I get all the rest of it, what I don’t get enough of is the recognition for how important it is that we produce British food.
“I get worried and concerned where you end up with in some of the messaging that comes out of government where you have this contradiction between where we want to drive our own standards, so we want the highest welfare, we want the highest environmental standards and we want to build on those, and at the same time, others within government or within politics, are saying actually it is all about importing the cheapest food from wherever we can find it in the world.”
He said the sort of policy that farming needs in the future will be determined by what trade deals are agreed, but that British food production should not be undermined in the process.
“In an uncertain world, I’m not sure we want to rely on our food coming from somewhere else. This is not about going back to when U-boats used to bomb our food supply, you go back to 2007, 2011 or 2012, when we saw some big commodity price hikes around the world. We were relatively isolated from those because of domestic production. If we allow ourselves to export where our food comes from, that puts us in a pretty uncomfortable place if we see those global price hikes again, and we will because these things happen,” Mr Roberts said.
He added he understood the inclusion in the command paper of identifying “public goods” that farmers should be rewarded for delivering, and that having a secure, safe, sustainable, domestic supply chain is a public good.
“If I fear about something in the command paper, that is the bit that hasn’t yet been recognised enough,” Mr Roberts said. “The current landscape that the public love and enjoy is the by-product of a productive agriculture sector.”
Farm businesses face tricky decisions as they plan ahead at a time when future policy remains uncertain and Mr Roberts said the only way to approach the situation as a farmer is to be open-minded, adaptable and prepared for change.
Having secured the promise from government of a transitional period between Brexit next March and the implementation of new farming policy, the industry has bought time to adapt to the new order, he said.
Earlier in his career, Mr Roberts worked in the civil service, including a spell at Defra and its predecessor department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Asked how he judged Defra’s capability to deliver a successful Brexit for farming, he said: “On the back of Brexit, they have ploughed huge resources into the department and it has grown significantly.
“One of the things I do worry about though is the day job; the delivery of the Basic Payment Scheme, of environmental schemes. I hear way too much talk that there’s a lack of resource there to churn through work, whether that’s a backlog of forms or inspection reports, and the reality is I do fear slightly that we spend lots of time on what we see as the big sexy Brexit ‘stuff’ and actually we still have to get payments out the door.”
He said he would be putting this to Paul Caldwell, the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, at a meeting with him this week.
NFU MAN IN PROFILE
Stuart Roberts was elected vice president of the National Farmers’ Union in February.
A third generation farmer whose grandfather came from Sheffield, he runs a predominantly organic arable operation next to Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire.
He studied agriculture and business at Aberystwyth University and went into farm contracting before then working for MAFF, the Food Standards Agency, and then Defra, where he led the winding up of BSE controls.
After a subsequent spell at meat processors ABP, he returned to the family farm.
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