Despite the virtual nature of the Conservative party conference (3-6 October), the NFU had a strong presence at the final party conference of the season, hosting and taking part in three high-profile fringe events to discuss the future of British agriculture.
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The NFU engaged in discussions with key policy makers for the farming industry including Secretary of State for Defra George Eustice MP and International Trade Secretary Liz Truss MP over the course of the conference.
In addition to the virtual fringe events, NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts and Vice President Tom Bradshaw attended roundtable discussions with Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministers, Nadhim Zahawi MP and Kwasi Kwarteng MP.
NFU President Minette Batters in conversation with Secretary of State for Defra George Eustice MP
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On Monday evening, Secretary of State for Defra George Eustice MP joined NFU President Minette Batters at the NFU’s Westminster office for a virtual fringe event, exclusive to NFU members. The Secretary of State answered questions that NFU members had submitted on some of the pertinent issues facing British farmers.
Mr Eustice recognised the vital role that farmers have played over the past six months:
“I hope that one thing that might come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is a better appreciation of the food industry and people who work across the supply chain.”
A lot of the discussion between Mrs Batters and Mr Eustice focused on the importance of backing British farmers in upcoming trade talks and agreements, but a broad range of other topics were also covered during the Q&A, including the availability of seasonal workers for 2021, the future of the agri-environment schemes and subsidies for Britain’s farmers and the NFU’s net zero ambitions.
"Many dairy farmers have suffered significantly as a result of Coronavirus and a drop in milk price."@Minette_Batters highlights the hardships that dairy farmers have face over the last 6 months and asks George Eustice if he believes the Dairy Response Fund is fit for purpose?? pic.twitter.com/FTDgaAn8fa— NFU Political (@NFUPolitical) October 5, 2020
When questioned on the need for more effective management of water, Mr Eustice affirmed the government’s desire to undertake ambitious infrastructure projects to move water to water scarce parts of the country:
“It ought to be possible for us to work out a way to move water from the west to the east.”
Mr Eustice also explained the work that Defra and the AHDB are doing to help farming businesses prepare for the end of the transition period and that government was doing everything it could to mitigate problems for the agriculture sector.
Wrapping up the event, Mrs Batters said:
“I think we are on a new pathway now. We have to work very closely together on the joined-up ambitions of government and of the industry."
300 NFU members, journalists and other stakeholders attended the webinar.
Setting the standard: Exporting our values
On Sunday 4 October, the NFU's President was ‘Setting the Standard’ at our event in partnership with ConservativeHome where she was joined by Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss MP and Independent Lead of National Food Strategy Henry Dimbleby. Mark Wallace, Chief Executive of ConservativeHome, chaired the discussion.
ConservativeHome is the most influential news and opinion site focused on the Conservative party and conservative politics and a primary resource for conservative commentators and activists. Over 3,500 conference delegates attended the discussion.
In her opening remarks, Liz Truss noted that it was a difficult time for farmers with the coronavirus pandemic and with preparations to leave the EU after the transition period. She asserted her belief that the future was positive for British farmers and stated that there was a world out there that wanted high quality British products, so it was vital that we had strong export markets.
“Opening up new markets gives our farmers options and alternatives,” explained Mrs Truss.
“The UK is a prized market. Country after country is coming forward to start FTA negotiations.”
Mrs Batters highlighted how farmers had the opportunity to lead the environment changes that the world needs, and the NFU looked forward to working closely with connections in the US at COP26 to bring about change.
She went on to discuss the importance of future trade deals and noted that oversight and scrutiny was going to be essential, stating that it was the NFU’s belief that parliament should have the final say on trade deals.
"Farming matters to each and every ones of us, our farmers produce the food on our plate."??? @Minette_Batters highlights that British farmers should not be undercut by low quality imports in future trade deals to ensure the public has access to quality, safe and nutritious food pic.twitter.com/pf9cZDzNG3— NFU Political (@NFUPolitical) October 4, 2020
Henry Dimbleby stated that, in terms of the thinking behind the recommendations in part one of the National Food Strategy, it was clear that maintaining standards was something that the British public cared passionately about, particularly by those less well off in society.
He asserted the need to get the future farming programme right; the need to ensure food raised to lower standards was not allowed to undercut food grown in the UK.
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Net zero, farming and trade: Feeding the nation and protecting the planet
Mrs Batters also took part in a fringe held in partnership with the Conservative Environment Network (CEN). Also on the panel was the Managing Director of Iceland Foods Richard Walker, UK Government Trade Envoy Richard Graham MP as well as EFRA Committee member, former vet and MP for Penrith and the Border Neil Hudson MP. The discussion was Chaired by CEN’s Director and a former Advisor to Michael Gove at Defra, Sam Hall.
The panel sparked a positive debate on the NFU’s ambition for the farming industry to be Net Zero by 2040 and how this can be achieved among broader challenges of trade, food supply and conservation.
Agriculture will be vital to help the country reach net zero, and this point was recognised by Dr Neil Hudson. He stated that the ambitious goals to achieve net zero could be achieved but it was important that it was done in partnership with farmers and landowners.
When asked on the challenges facing upland farmers, Dr Hudson highlighted the need to articulate to the public that a balanced diet, including meat, was a good thing.
Mrs Batters stated that climate change was the challenge of our time but also an exciting opportunity for the country as a whole to show leadership and noted how farmers were part of the solution. She also highlighted the potential environmental impact of future trade deals:
“We cannot and should not offshore our emissions, we should be leading the world. This is about a positive change on every single level.”
When asked about the impact of future trade deals on our ability to achieve net zero emissions, Richard Graham said the race towards net zero didn’t have to be at the cost of our agricultural produce.
Wrapping up the event, the NFU's President highlighted the importance of food security.
“We are putting pressure on water scarce parts of the world by importing food that we could grow here.
“We are currently growing 18% of our fruit here. Let’s produce more of what we are able to grow.”
More from NFUonline:
- Agriculture Bill: Your last chance to influence this vital legislation
- Lords vote for Agriculture Bill amendment in favour of trade deal scrutiny
- NFU Live: Events from the NFU this autumn
- Watch now: Your weekly video update from the President
- NFU media coverage on food standards and trade