Great Yorkshire Virtual Show Special: Q&A with the NFU

Today as part of the Great Yorkshire Virtual Show, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), Minette Batters, has delivered a special address to the Future Farmers of Yorkshire, as well as answering a selection of questions submitted by Future Farmers.

We received so many great questions to pose to Mrs Batters – too many to answer as part of her show address – and so here, the NFU answers a whole host of extra questions put forward by our members.

Q: It is great to hear of Liz Truss’s recent support for UK standards when entering trade discussions. Does the NFU see our Net Zero targets being written into UK production standards, or will these become a costly hurdle and standard for UK producers not protected in international trade? Will these standards impact trading with countries who demonstrate far less commitment to environmental production standards?

A: This question pre-supposes that net zero targets would add cost to farming. The real wins of net-zero are producing more food more efficiently, thus reducing the impact of farming on the environment and the benefit of change staying on the farm.

Through things like modern farming techniques, climate smart agriculture and carbon sequestration UK farmers in our temperate climate are well placed to take advantage of new opportunities and capture new income streams from future policy in farming, the environment and potentially carbon trading.

These opportunities could be undermined if, as the question suggests, the UK Government trades in agricultural products with countries with a different approach and a lesser commitment to the environment.

It is unclear as to whether in the future climate targets will be written in to policy in farming or indeed in other sectors, but we believe the Government has the opportunity to ensure standards are maintained by a new approach to international trade. The net zero aspirations of UK farming could well be our competitive advantage in domestic and international trade in the future.

Q: How does the NFU intend to help farmers deal with the effects of flooding?

A: The NFU continues to work with government departments, its agencies, local authorities and IDB’s to address the challenges farmers face from both too much and not enough water. The region has seen its fair share of floods and the NFU has always put a compelling case for government for funding to assist with the recovery, since the first Farming Recovery Scheme in 2013.

We are seeing the harsh reality of wetter winters (February 2020 was the wettest on record) and drier summers such as the 2018 drought. This year the clean-up operation has been ongoing from the impact of the 2019/2020 floods, and exceptionally dry conditions this spring triggered a National Drought Group meeting on the 5 June.

Thankfully, we have seen some respite with rain in the last few weeks. Everyone’s experience over the last few months has taught us many things – one of which is the importance of maintaining the food supply chain and at the heart of that of course is of our domestic food production.

We’re campaigning to ensure that agriculture is properly valued in flood risk assessments and that rural flooding is effectively managed. That’s why we are developing an integrated water management strategy for agriculture that we believe government should adopt in order to Plan, Protect and Pay.

Q: Is there an opportunity for the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme to join the dots between stewardship and legislation e.g. grass margins and buffer zones?

Defra’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme could shape British agriculture for generations to come and is high on our agenda. Defra have recently re-released the consultation around their discussion paper, with a deadline of Friday 31 July for responses. The paper outlines high level proposals for ELM, but we know that Defra is developing more detail as we speak, so we’re making sure we feed in your thoughts and feedback. This includes how legislation/regulation could tie in with ELM.

Defra are exploring options for ELM and regulation working together, and they have talked about using regulation as a “lever” or an entry requirement for ELM, similar to cross-compliance. The NFU knows that in order to work for farming, ELM will need to align with the range of regulation farmers comply with across their businesses. The scheme will need to support UK farmers to provide food and to deliver and maintain the environmental goods it provides.

Defra need to learn lessons from past schemes and previous regulations to make a simple, fair and sustainable scheme for the future, and as they progress with developing ELM, it’s these messages and many more, that we continue to highlight to Defra to ensure our member’s voices are heard.

Q: What is being done to safeguard our best and most cost-effective chemical armoury? We’ve lost diquat, CIPC and chlorothalonil just recently and the gun is pointed at mancozeb – all 50+ years old but cheap reliable chemistry and mostly still available to our competitors. One must ask, what next?

A: This questions raises a couple of really important points, both about the future of PPP regulation here in the UK, and in relation to how we safeguard UK agricultural production in the trade agreements the government wants to reach with other countries.

There’s no question that this is a challenging time for the PPP toolbox, and we have lost some effective and proven actives recently which are hard to replace.

The NFU is pushing hard for a better and more scientific approach to pesticide regulation as Brexit takes shape, and one that recognizes the role PPPs play in the production of healthy and sustainable food. This will not be easy, but we will keep emphasizing to government that our main objective is plant health and PPPs play a vital role in the integrated pest management (IPM) which we are all going to be asked to do more of.

The other part of your question raises the issues of imported food which may have been treated with actives we are not able to use here. This is really important right now, and I hope you’ll all have seen the work the NFU has been doing to highlight the absurdity of banning actives here, whilst allowing food to come into the country which has been treated with those same actives.

Q: How can we better encourage the Government and consumers to support and value high value standards? What strategies do you have going forward for this? What role do you see education playing in this?

A: This is a very important issue and key to a prosperous future for farming. The whole issue of standards is connected to our changing political situation as the Government negotiates new trade deals, but also to our domestic farming policy in the UK and the role if UK consumers.

From an international trade perspective, the NFU has long championed the need for fairness in trading conditions to ensure UK farmers are not undermined by products produced elsewhere to lower production standards than our own. That’s why we developed a petition signed by over 1 million consumers on this topic, have pushed for a Trade and Standards Commission to oversee this and we will closely monitor and lobby on future trade deals through our International Trade team.

The Government can also help farming by looking closely at issues such as public procurement in places like prisons, schools and hospitals to support our high standards through their buying decisions.

For consumers, there is a role for Red Tractor, for the levy boards and for retailers of all sizes to continue to provide consumers with as much information as possible on the standards of food production in to help in their buying decisions.

We do this through working with industry stakeholders to champion our cause but also directly through our public facing ‘Countryside’ website, joint initiatives with food companies such as the recent Colman’s link up to promote British meat, and through our ongoing engagement with primary schools through initiatives like ‘Farmvention’ and with our ‘Speakers for Schools’ programme in secondary schools.

Q: Faced with an aging farming population and a major challenge to ensure farming is equipped for the future, what do you see as the best way to encourage succession and new entrants to our industry?

A: There are huge policy changes coming in farming connected to the environment, the future for farm support and the way in which we trade the products we produce. This means that there will likely be changes in farm structures, and farm businesses now are gearing up for changes that are coming and for many farm businesses this needs to include a discussion on succession.

This discussion is often very difficult, can involve a number of generations in one family and of course these discussions are different on different farms be they owner occupied, tenanted or a combination of the two.

There is a range of support available, we have hosted numerous workshops and events focussed on succession planning and have strong relationships with legal panel firms Crombie Wilkinson and Jacksons Law Firm from a legal perspective and a range of surveyor firms who can offer support or advice on this topic.

In addition, the whole issue of succession and the future for young people in our industry is top of the list for our Next Generation Forum nationally and regionally – helping younger people by articulating their needs to drive policy change.

The succession discussion on farm needs to start with an informed conversation, and there is a lot of support available to make that happen. The wider point about attracting new entrants to our industry is broad in scope – we need new ideas and new approaches to build farming businesses from new entrants on the one side, and new agreements, partnerships and collaborations to be built on the other to make these happen.

Q: Is Red Tractor assurance fit for purpose in a post Brexit world?

As has come across in many of the questions and answers elsewhere, the role of trade and standards in the future will be a big determining factor in the future success for UK farm businesses.

Underpinning the world beating standards that UK farmers produce to is a regulatory regime but also one of farm assurance. New markets are not looking for lower levels of assurance or lower standards and neither are our home consumers.

Red Tractor, like all assurance standards and brands, needs to work hard to deliver for consumers as well as scheme members. What we have is whole chain farm to fork assurance that is truly world leading and the reality is that our competitors are not standing still.

Red Tractor delivers excellent value, much reduced burdens on farms and a gold standard in transparency and trust for farmers and consumers alike. Make no mistake, Red Tractor will play an even more important role in the post Brexit world than before.

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Leanne FordeJoe Weston