Chairman of the British Farmers’ Union: “It seems that the will to support food production is lacking”

The United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union on 31 January 2020. Since Brexit, British farmers have been in uncertainty about the future, says Minette Batters of the National Farmers Union (NFU), the British equivalent of the LTO. The government in London is working on ambitious plans to give the sector prospects for the future.

For example, the UK government has presented a vision for the future of agriculture. This ‘State Food Strategy’ outlines the Government’s ambitions and priorities to create a more prosperous and sustainable agri-food sector. The food strategy also aims to maintain or increase national food production, create employment and improve the health of Britons, including combating obesity.

Dutch and British farmers face much the same challenges

Minette Batters, chairman of the NFU

The strategy lists a number of measures to achieve these goals. For example, the UK government will allocate hundreds of millions of British pounds to innovation in the coming years. More work permits are also issued to migrant workers in agriculture and horticulture. Investment is also made in improving the knowledge of farmers and their employees.

In addition, the government wants to encourage farmers to do more in soil improvement, circular farming and restoring biodiversity. A policy has been created that is very similar to the new CAP, with less emphasis on direct payments and more fees for eco-services.

What do you think of the government’s food strategy?

“The strategy itself is a milestone. The government recognizes the importance of domestic food production and maintaining our production capacity. And she aims to grow more food in her own country.

“Domestic food production and environmental performance can go hand in hand and we are proud that British farmers have expressed the ambition to be carbon neutral by 2040 while maintaining our current levels of food production.”

That sounds pretty positive. Is there a downside?

“The positive thing is that the government has laid out a food strategy. It is the first time in 75 years. The concern is how we translate this vision into policy that is aligned with other ministries, such as public health. It is a starting document, the beginning of conversations. There is still a long way to go.

“We have reservations about a number of issues and our government’s commitment, such as the trade agreements. For example, we still do not have a final treaty with the EU (including border control on the English side, ed.). It should be a priority because it is our biggest market right on our doorstep for both of us. We are positive, but also not completely sure of a good result.

‘We know consumers want more local British food. Our farmers are ready to contribute. This is possible with the production of high quality food and according to strict environmental standards. We must develop this food strategy into concrete measures and achievable goals. Our standards for animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety can then become world leaders.’

Before Brexit, studies were published that outlined disaster scenarios for farmers when they left the EU. Has any of that prediction come true?

‘It’s impossible to say yet. A transition period of seven years has been set aside, and we still need to set it up properly. For example, we cannot continue to enter into trade agreements with countries with lower production standards than we do and at the same time expect our farmers to meet higher standards. That is always the challenge and our concern from day 1.

“At the moment, we have the feeling that agriculture is always a pawn when a trade agreement has to be negotiated. We remain very concerned about the outcome of such negotiations.’

We regularly receive reports that UK farmers are unable to harvest their crops due to staff shortages. Is labor such a big problem?

“It’s still a big point. It also affects our whole economy. Ultimately that’s what Brexit was about. We hope this changes.’

Dutch farmers’ trust in the government is under pressure. What’s it like in the UK?

“There is a growing distrust of different levels of government in this country. Boris Johnson had to step down as Prime Minister at national level. We now have a new leader of the Conservative Party in Liz Truss. We hope that with it comes a new sound. It is clear that food and agriculture are on the agenda.

“Mistrust also plays a role at local level. Recent elections have seen a shift in some rural areas. Liberal Democrats took over in places where conservatives had ruled for over a hundred years. People are very angry with the board.’

Why are the villagers angry?

‘For it led politics. This is strongly focused on nature and environmental measures and not on farmers and the fact that food production is at the heart of agriculture and horticulture. In addition, farmers have difficulty finding employees for their businesses. It has become much more difficult since leaving the EU than before. There are also many concerns about trade agreements.

“Farmers just don’t feel like the government is working with them like it should.”

You have recently visited a number of companies in the Netherlands. Do you see similarities?

“I think that Dutch and British farmers have basically the same challenges. But I also see huge opportunities for both of them. Our businesses will change and evolve, but everyone needs to eat, now and in the future. And it’s not about providing calories, but about providing health.’

In the Netherlands, farmers and the cabinet are diametrically opposed when it comes to nitrogen emissions. What do you think about it?

‘I have spoken to the LTO and a few farmers about this. I understand why they are so angry because this policy is causing many farmers to go out of business. They don’t even get the chance to look at the options for reducing their emissions. And to think that they have already made an efficiency improvement.

‘We have also taken steps in the UK to reduce emissions, but we know there is still more possible and we are working on it. In the Netherlands, they don’t even get the chance’.

What can we learn from this?

‘It seems that people in Europe, including the UK, do not have the will to support food production. And that while food is such a fundamental part of everyone’s life. I find it extremely frustrating that farmers are treated this way politically.

‘We face enormous global challenges, such as water supply, food security, climate change and a growing world population. Governments need to engage in a different kind of dialogue with farmers and look at the solutions they can offer.

“It’s just not right for a country’s government to say ‘we don’t do this production here’. When we export our production, we also export our conscience”.

Minette dough (55) is chairman of the British farmers’ organization NFU. She comes from a farming family and runs a 300-hectare mixed farm near Downton in south-west England. In addition to the farm, she runs a catering business and uses a converted barn as a wedding venue. She co-founded the 2010 ‘Ladies in Beef’ campaigns and ‘Great British Beef Week’ to bring British meat to consumers. Batters joined the farmer’s organization when she started farming and grew up to be a district chairman and a member of several NFU committees. In 2018, she became the first woman to serve as president of the organization, having served as vice president from 2014 to 2018. She was re-elected in 2020 for a second term for a two-year term. In her role as NFU chairman, she represents the sector at a time of great change, such as Brexit. It has also agreed with the government on a target for NFU of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

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