Minette Batters, appearing at the show for the first time as NFU president and ten days after she met Prime Minister Theresa May for talks, said the Government had kept the food industry “at arm’s length” for a very long time but that current Environment Secretary Michael Gove has the influence to “reposition” the importance of food and farming.
She said that Mr Gove was due to visit the show on Thursday when the heads of each UK farming union would meet with him.
The Defra Minister has admitted that food was not referenced enough in his department’s consultation earlier this year on future farm policy proposals. The admission followed criticism from farmers that the focus fell too much the environment rather than food production.
Mrs Batters said farming could only deliver for the environment if the sector is financially viable
She said: “We are farmers and we produce food, if we can get that bit right we can ultimately deliver on the ‘Green Brexit’ that he wants to achieve.”
Explaining why union leaders from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were taking the unusual step of gathering as one at the show on Thursday, she said: “We want British farmers to represent really united thinking for the future to Government.
“We want to remain the number one supplier to the UK market. We know the rest of the world’s eyes are on our market and we want British farmers to remain that number one supplier of choice for retail, the food service and for exports.”
Mrs Batters said she used her meeting with Mrs May to impress upon her that the protection of British food standards is “a red line” for the NFU, which must not be undermined by future trade deals that allow cheaper food from countries with weaker animal welfare standards to flood the market.
The PM had now shown some much-needed clarity, she said, by outlining her plans for a “free trade area with a common rule book”, despite sparking a series of Cabinet resignations.
But the deputy leader of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Mark Bridgeman said that plan makes striking independent trade deals with the rest of the world more difficult “because we would be more tied into Europe”. Nonetheless, frictionless trade with Europe would be good for farming, he said, even if there were downsides.
“We can’t have frictionless trade with Europe and be able to do what we want,” he said.
“That was a dream. We are going to have to be complying with the same regulations as Europe because that’s the way it works and what’s being proposed.”