Political leaders quizzed at Cereals

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Political leaders got a grilling at the Cereals Event this week, with visitors demanding answers on a range of topics from trade agreements to food security and environmental schemes.

In his home county of Nottinghamshire, Defra Minister Mark Spencer was quick to reassure visitors: “Never in my farming or political lifetime has agriculture and food production been so high on the agenda,” he said. “That’s why the Prime Minister held the Farm to Fork Summit and why we continue to work with farmers up and down the country to find solutions to the challenges we face.”

But NFU President Minette Batters said there was a greater risk than ever to food security and farm profitability. “I’ve been solidly talking about how food security matters for 10 years now, and the penny has finally dropped. The world is at a tipping point and everything we are facing now was signposted in the foresight report by John Beddington back in 2011. Looking at where Europe is – the Green Deal, Farm to Fork, 25% of land area in organics; that’s yesterdays news,” she stressed. “That is not going to do what is needed now – sustainability is the licence to trade.”

Long and painful road

Government taking food security seriously has been a long and painful road, she said. “It was a landmark moment when Rishi Sunak hosted the first ever food security summit. I feel we’ve moved the dial slowly, very slowly sometimes, and positively in the right direction.”

And with the Prime Minister committing to a self sufficiency target and a statutory duty to report on it, Ms Batters stressed its importance. “We had a very high cost regulatory environment before, and the bar has got even higher – for legislation and regulation,” she added.

Ms Batters moved on to discuss the importance of getting the sustainable farm incentive (SFI) fit for purpose. “We really have to focus on profitability for all farming businesses. If we are going to carry on with a scheme that is focused purely on environmental delivery, we will see less food produced here.

“If the ambition is genuine – that we are going to be producing more food and establishing green growth – then it needs to be in the policy framework. At the moment, profitability is in producing the environmental crop; it is not as profitable for food production.”

Agreed baselines

Reflecting on the NFU’s work, Ms Batters admitted she has regrets – one of her greatest being failing to bring together the scientific community on the white paper to address trade in carbon markets. But the NFU is now working, with the permission of the Secretary of State, to bring together practitioners, scientists, and academics to focus on developing a sort of SAGE (scientific advisory group for emergencies) for agriculture, with agreed baselines. “If we don’t know the baseline from where we start, we can’t value where we started this journey, and we can’t ever have a carbon market that is credible.”

On the second day, Janet Hughes, programme director at the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, explained how Defra is adapting to help deliver a thriving farm sector with secure food production and environmental improvements. “That’s a big ask, as we want to do those things all together,” she said. Known for being straight talking and proactive, Ms Hughes said the organisation is reforming its approach to have a more grown-up, business-like attitude towards farmers.

Given the target of getting 70% of farmers signed up to the new environmental schemes, she insisted that it’s vital to listen to their feedback, and then adapt the schemes accordingly. Although she acknowledged farmers’ frustration at the delay in announcing full details of the SFI, she confirmed that they would be revealed within the next couple of weeks.

The schemes will also be made increasingly flexible, allowing farmers to ‘pick and mix’ suitable measures for their system, with the ability to reassess them annually and adjust end-dates to marry up different schemes like the SFI and Countryside Stewardship.

In terms of which scheme to choose, Ms Hughes said the SFI was suitable for everyone, with a choice of options, most of which would help reduce costs and improve business resilience. It will be open this summer.

Countryside Stewardship is the next step up and is being made more straightforward and fairer than in the past. Landscape Recovery is for those who want to work with groups of farmers to create bespoke, long-term, large-scale projects. Finally, there are capital grants for a range of farm improvements, and free business advice to help farmers choose.

“We’re spending £2.4bn a year in England and are trying to improve the service we provide,” she explained. “If it (the programme) doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work (at all).”

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