A common voice on future policy and eliminating the hypocrisy on grain standards will be key to a vibrant UK grains sector post-Brexit, according to NFU president Minette Batters.
After four years of wrangling, the prospect of the UK crashing out the EU with no-deal was finally taken off the table on Christmas eve, as the two parties agreed a tariff- and quota-free trade deal.
It was a major relief for UK farming, with most sectors – including grain production – relying on frictionless trade with the bloc of 27 European countries for profitable exports.
Speaking at the first virtual Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC) annual technical event last week, NFU president Minette Batters told over 200 delegates that getting a deal was essential in protecting these market opportunities.
And while the deal isn’t perfect – AHDB estimate that producers will have to contend with 4-8% addition export costs – it avoided the immediate disaster that some predicted if negotiations failed.
Throughout the Brexit process, Ms Batters said agriculture managed to get its voice heard effectively, not only influencing the trade deal, but also the recent Agriculture Act passed late in 2020.
Part of the act ensures greater transparency in future trade negotiations and ensures parliament has time to scrutinise and hold the Government to account on its manifesto pledge to uphold food standards.
“We knew from very early on that you are not going to have our voice being heard unless we could unite an unprecedented coalition.
“We had the support of the UK-wide farming organisations group, which included the four farming unions,” said Ms Batters.
In addition to these farming groups, NGOs, animal welfare and consumer groups and chefs from were also included, along with more than one million signatories on a petition to uphold food standards of produce coming into the UK.
Ms Batters suggested that the arable sector now needs to do the same if future policy is going to be shaped to its advantage, particularly with some potential minefields on the horizon in the next five years.
A very mixed public and farmer reaction to the recent Emergency Approval of a neonicotinoid seed treatment in sugar beet and the consultation on the use of gene editing are examples of why this united voice is needed to present a clear vision and educate and inform people with facts.
“We came so close to losing the whole sugar beet sector, which is an incredibly important part of a rotation [for many farms].
“The emergency approval will help build the bridges to the opportunities [that technology like]gene editing might bring, but we aren’t going to get there overnight,” said Ms Batters.
Environment v food
She added that for pesticide use and gene editing, any public debate usually morphs into “food vs environment”, but both are intrinsically linked and must be balanced in order to shape a sustainable arable sector in the UK.
Crop protection products are key to integrated pest management (IPM) strategies already being delivered by a world class crop protection advisory sector, led by AICC members.
Improved gene edited varieties have the potential to enhance these strategies, if approved, and can help in drive productivity and improve resource use efficiency, which Ms Batters says should be central to the sector’s future.
She has been pressing DEFRA minister George Eustace for a policy roadmap to navigate these upcoming challenges, all while trying to reach the goal of net zero food production by 2040.
“We’ve got to have a policy that backs it all up, works for farmers and enables them access to the tools that are needed. There also needs to be policy drivers for things that the market isn’t going to pay for.”
In addition to shaping the right policy and toolkit for a sustainable arable sector, Ms Batters added that the hypocrisy within UK grain markets has to end to enable the sector to flourish.
Significant tonnage is imported each year that has been produced to lower standards and in the case of milling wheat, it can make it into bread loaves wrapped in packaging emblazoned with a Union Jack flag.
This is leaving growers increasingly frustrated that their high standard produce doesn’t get the get the brand recognition it deserves through assurance schemes such as Red Tractor.
Ms Batters believes a reformed Red Tractor is still the right vehicle to deliver that brand recognition, perhaps taking inspiration from the Australian model that clearly labels bread packaging with the percentage of home grain grains used in its production.
Market research and retailers suggest that demand for home grown food increasing and with the UK climate ideal for grains production, the sector is in a strong position to maintain its market and build an export profile on quality, too.
“For this to succeed, our processing sectors must commit to eliminating the hypocrisy between domestic and imported grain.
“We have got to make sure that we avoid exporting our production, standards and our conscience and have absolute clarity and honesty about what our consumers are buying,” added Ms Batters.
Consultations – have your voice heard
NFU’s Minette Batters encouraged the arable industry to take part in two crucial consultations which are now up and running. The results will have a significant impact on how growers will be able to utilise pesticides and genetic technology.
- The Sustainable Use of Pesticides: Draft National Action plan
- The regulation of genetic technologies