NFU president highlights trade, access to labour and a strong domestic agricultural policy as key requirements for sector

NFU president Meurig Raymond opened the NFU conference yesterday with a call for clarity on the Government's commitments to farming.

NFU president Meurig Raymond - image: HW
NFU president Meurig Raymond - image: HW

His address was followed by a speech by Defra secretary of state Andrea Leadsom who outlined five key principles that would help steer the Government's approach to food and farming.  

In his opening speech Raymond highlighted three areas Government needs to take action on if Brexit is to be successful for the country’s food and farming industry: the right trade deals, access to a competent and reliable workforce and a domestic agricultural policy that works for the country.

British farmers produce the raw ingredients for the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, worth £108 billion. It provides jobs for 3.9 million people, and has the potential to deliver much more for the country.  The NFU says the industry now needs certainty and firm commitments from government if the country is to feel the benefits of a thriving food and farming industry.

Raymond said: "Over the next two years negotiations will take place which will have a massive impact on farming and Britain’s ability to have a thriving food production system.  Brexit needs to be successful when we leave the EU.

"We need government to now build on the strong foundations laid down in July so that it is clear how and why the industry will be better off. NFU members want to deliver on a vision shared with Government for an increasingly profitable, competitive and sustainable food and farming sector.  Britain has a right to expect improved food security and enduring economic growth. Put simply farming contributes to the health and wealth of the British people.

"We have been clear on what we think are the main ingredients for success.  It is a fairly simple recipe, with three main ingredients. Firstly unrestricted access to the European market, secondly continued access to a competent and reliable workforce both pre and post farm-gate and thirdly a new agricultural policy which assists in the development of an increasingly productive, progressive and above all profitable farming sector.

 "We will need the Government’s support in all of these areas. Starting with keeping important trade routes open to ensure a smooth transition to new trading relationships with Europe post-Brexit with the best possible access to markets all over the world.

"Farming is reliant on being able to recruit both a permanent and seasonal workforce and we have a very serious challenge right now.  The horticulture and poultry sectors – which are reliant on seasonal temporary workers - are already struggling to recruit up to 95,000 needed by 2021. We urge the cabinet to work with us to sort this out as a matter of urgency. British food production depends it.  In fact, the whole food chain depends on it."

Resonding to Meurig Raymond, Leadsom who addressed the event acknowleged that food and farming faces "some of the biggest changes of any sector as we leave the EU".

"But with change comes great opportunities'" she said.  

She ackowedged that NFU members are "looking for clarity on specific issues – such as the future of direct payments, the prospects for seasonal agricultural workers, and access to the single market to name just a few".

She said: "As a major contributor to the UK economy – contributing close to £110 billion each year – there is no doubt that there will be support for our vital food and farming industry after we leave the EU.  But I’m not going to stand here today and pre-empt the work the Government is doing to get the best possible deal for the UK.

"Those negotiations will take time, and change is, of course, inevitable. But I want you to know that I will fight your corner at every opportunity – and fight for the huge contribution you make to our communities, to our environment, and to our economy.

Leaving the EU she said provided the opportunity to ask ‘what kind of industry do we want to be? And how do we devise a system of support that properly takes into account the diverse types of farming, and the challenges unique to each?

"So, for example, how can we ensure a more tailored approach – one that recognises the needs of hill farmers alongside those of arable farmers and protects our precious uplands as well as our productive fenland?

"These are the kind of questions the current system can’t even pose, let alone answer."

Going forward, Leadsom outlined five principles for a successful farming future including trade, productivity, sustainability, trust and resilience. 

Said Leadsom: "The first principle is trade. As a global trading nation with so much to offer the world, we are looking to build new partnerships and strike the best free trade deals for Britain.

"This year, exports of British food and drink topped £20 billion for the first time – a tremendous endorsement of our world class products and the importance placed on British provenance.

"In spite of growing success, we know that only 1 in 5 British food and drink producers are currently exporting. So how can we encourage farmers, exporters, and newcomers to access new markets?

"I recognise that around 60% of exports go direct to the EU, and that 4 of our 5 biggest markets are there. The EU is our most important trading partner, a fact that won’t change when we leave, and a relationship we are determined to uphold.

"As the Prime Minister outlined last month, we want tariff-free and frictionless cross-border trade with Europe. So with zero tariffs and zero non-tariff barriers as our starting point, we are striving for the best possible access for our farmers and food exporters.

"In 2016, exports grew by 9%, with growth in a number of key markets - including a 49% increase to China, 30% to Poland and 17% to Spain. To get more companies taking advantage of export opportunities, such as the UK-China barley agreement, we have a dedicated government team working with potential exporters in the Great British Food Unit. They are helping to identify and open new markets for our award-winning produce, as well as providing the skills, knowledge and contacts to take British businesses even further.

"Our International Action Plan for Food and Drink has identified a number of priority markets, including the US, China and India, which offer the greatest potential to grow our exports.

"Farmers work hard to maintain our reputation for superb tasting, high quality food, produced to high welfare and traceability standards - so let’s spread that reputation further around the world.

On productivity, she said current CAP arrangements offer little investment or incentive, "so I want to make productivity and innovation the second principle of a new farming system."

"Productivity is the major challenge for our economy as a whole – and the Government’s Industrial Strategy outlines the need to raise skills, leadership and business management. We need to build on excellent initiatives like McDonalds’ Progressive Young Farmers and Bright Crop to demonstrate to talented young people that farming offers a great career.

"We’ve made some progress towards increasing the number of apprentices on farms. But how can we encourage a greater understanding of the food chain? And how can we help more people with the right skills into food and farming?

"As for seasonal agricultural workers, I have heard loud and clear the vital role they play in many farm businesses, not least the horticultural sector.  But at the same time, we mustn’t forget that a key factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration. So I want to find out what kind of labour you need, in food processing as well as farming, whilst exploring the role innovation can play in support of this.

On sustainability and the environment Leadsom said as we leave the EU, "we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at these [CAP] schemes and think about what mechanisms are needed to promote the twin goals of productive farming and environmental improvement. I want to consider, for example, how we will strike the right balance between national frameworks for support measures whilst tailoring them to local landscapes and catchments. And how can we incentivise as many farmers as possible to undertake environmental improvements on their land?

"The Farmer Cluster concept, pioneered by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Natural England is a great example of how farmers can come together, at a landscape scale, to farm productively whilst delivering greater outcomes for soil, water and wildlife – such as boosting the number of grey partridge in Lincolnshire or harvest mice in Hampshire.

On trust she said the fourth principle underpinning a new agricultural support policy must be the promotion of animal and plant health and welfare, adding she is committed to honouring a 2015 manifesto pledge stating that ‘high animal welfare standards will be incorporated into international trade agreements…"

Leadsom said from today, her department would be stepping up this engagement with the industry "to ensure we hear as many views, from as many different perspectives, as possible".

"On Thursday I will be meeting Ministers from each of the Devolved Administrations in Edinburgh - and throughout March and April we will be holding a network of events right across the country where ministers and officials will be able to hear your views first hand.

"We have a once in a generation opportunity to transform our food and farming policies and it’s vital you are a key part of this process

"It is only with the the hard work of farmers that we can put quality food on our tables, that we can drive our valuable exports, and that we can improve our environment.

"That’s why I am determined we should follow these five principles to guide us through a period of change, and provide a foundation for the sort of industry we want to build over the coming years.

A new report from Development Economics says that for every £1 invested in farm support, farming delivers £7.40 back to the economy.

For the first time farming’s contribution to the country has been expressed in this way in monetary value. The NFU President said this will highlight to Government the positive economic, social and environmental impact of the sector just weeks before Article 50 is triggered.

Development Economics managing director Steve Lucas said: "This is an important moment in the debate around EU negotiations. For the first time we have calculated the total contribution of agriculture to the UK economy and society. This shows how critical farming is to the country and why the Government must prioritise the sector during Brexit negotiations."

Meurig Raymond said: "This report demonstrates well that money invested by government into UK farming is money invested wisely. With the right trade and labour conditions, this sector could deliver an even greater return to the country.

"Farmers are proud to produce food for a growing population, but also go above and beyond this, playing a huge role in contributing to the wealth and prosperity of the country. Decision-makers in Government can take this important message to the formal post-Brexit negotiations.

"For centuries farms have been deeply rooted in the rural community, stimulating the wider economy. Today’s report shows farming spends £15.3billion on goods and services. Businesses providing animal feed, crop seeds and vets, to name a few, all depend on productive and profitable farms for custom. 

"The iconic British countryside which farmers manage provides the backdrop for visitors from across the world – this tourism is worth over £21billion. With farms operating on 70% of British land, we must ensure these farms are viable businesses in order to carry on delivering this.

"With this report, we can look at the economic impact agriculture has already made. But it’s clear that farming, and with that, food, could have a very different path carved for its future – and it will be up to Government to do this in the formal negotiations.

  "To increase the vital contribution farming makes to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the UK, Government must ensure we have the best possible trade deals, access to a competent and reliable workforce and farm support that is fit for purpose. 

"A future domestic agricultural policy has got to work for Britain."

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