NFU Leader urges Government not to back down in trade talks

NFU President Minette Batters has called for a strengthening of the Agriculture Bill to safeguard food standards.

The NFU President said the Government needed to stand firm on food production standards

Speaking at the NFU’s annual conference, Mrs Batters said when it came to any future trade deals British farmers must not have their hands tied to the highest rung of the standards ladder, while imported food which may not even reach the bottom rung is waved through.

She reiterated the NFU’s call for a commission to oversee trade regulations around food and agriculture, describing any trade deal which opened the UK up to cheap imports as “morally bankrupt”.

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“If you raise the bar at home but refuse to legislate on imports then I can only wonder, was the motive ever really about improving global standards in welfare or the environment after all,” she said.

The NFU has been urging the Government to stand firm and protect the world-leading welfare and production standards met by British farmers and Mrs Batters reiterated this saying countries who want to trade with the UK should do so “on our terms” when it comes to food standards.

She also said it was an issue which would test the moral compass of some in Government.

But the new Environment Minister, George Eustice, insisted UK food safety and welfare standards would not be jeopardised through future trade deals when he joined delegates the following day.

Mr Eustice took part in a politics session hosted by Mrs Batters and defended the Environment Land Management scheme which will replace the Basic Payment Scheme, rewarding farmers for public goods such as carbon offsetting, improved air quality and water management.

With a number of places still under water following the extreme weather conditions, Mr Eustice told the conference farmers could be paid to store water on their land to protect communities.

He said the incoming ELM system would back efforts to reduce floods.

“Our new, independent agricultural system will give farmers a big part to play, by encouraging land management that supports flood management – releasing the pressure on lowland and urban areas by keeping water in the soil in upland catchments to slow the flow of water through the landscape.

“Protecting homes and communities from flooding is a public good and is one of the objectives set out in our Agriculture Bill.”

In the following question and answer session, he said: “With climate change we are getting more frequent extreme weather events. This has been an incredibly wet winter, we’ve had a wet winter and then two consecutive storms, Ciara and Dennis, and there’s nowhere for the water to go.”

He said the Government had spent £2.5bn on flood defences, some of which were “soft defences” upstream but much of it was hard defences in urban areas. “But we do recognise there is more to do, because climate change is here to stay – we are seeing more of this extreme weather.”

Mrs Batters who hosted the session, agreed: “This is only going to get worse, we’re only going to see more of it.”

She warned of a need for “seismic investment” in the UK’s water infrastructure, through things such as reservoirs on farms to store water with nature friendly solutions only part of the answer.

“If you can’t store these millions of gallons of water, you’re going to continue to have the same crisis with communities and farmland,” she said.

Details of the new ELM scheme outlined in the Agricultural Bill are still in the process of being put in place with a pilot scheme due to start next year.

Due to be phased in over seven years, it will have several levels of environmental measures farmers can be paid for, ranging from on-farm activities such as looking after hedges up to landscape-scale schemes such as restoring peatland.

Mr Eustice said the Government is also looking at an exit scheme to help older farmers retire “with dignity” by providing them with the option to take several years of the old subsidy payments in a single settlement in return for giving up their tenancy or selling or renting their farm.

Following the two-day conference, the NFU held its AGM and elected its office holders for the next term.

Mrs Batters was re-elected as president with Stuart Roberts stepping up to deputy president and new to office, Tom Bradshaw, takes the vice president role.

The first female president of the NFU, Mrs Batters, a Wiltshire beef farmer, said she was “very proud” to represent the NFU’s 46,000 farmers and growers.

“The next couple of years are going to be challenging for our sector and we need the farming industry to speak with one voice.”