What is the Conservative Party's long-term plan for British agriculture?

04 October 2023

The panel at NFU Conservative Party fringe event 2023. From left to right: Therese Coffey, Minette Batters, Kate McCann and Tim Smith.

Thanks to NFU lobbying, food security has never been higher on the political agenda. Read on to find out how farmers’ questions were answered at our fringe event – and why the British public want a government that backs British farming.

The NFU has had a strong presence throughout the Conservative Party conference, engaging with senior Conservative politicians and policy makers to ensure that the needs of British farmers remain a top priority for government.

On the second night of the conference, the NFU hosted a fringe event led by NFU President Minette Batters who stressed the need for the government to present a coherent and tangible strategy for the future of British farming. The message to the Conservative Party was crystal clear: food cannot fail.

The session brought together a panel of speakers which included Defra Secretary of State Dr Thérèse Coffey MP and Chair of the Food and Drink Sector Council Tim Smith CBE. The session was chaired by Kate McCann, Political Editor at Times Radio.

With almost 150 people in attendance, it was a full house as NFU members, conference delegates and parliamentarians gathered to quiz the panel of the future of British farming. The main question of the evening was “What is the Conservative Party’s long-term plan for British agriculture?”

Food security at the forefront

Setting the scene for an evening of lively discussion, political journalist Kate McCann noted the ever-increasing salience of food security in British politics. Acknowledging the problems created by the Covid pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, Ms McCann remarked that farming issues will be front and centre of debates at the next general election.

In her opening remarks the Defra Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey also gave a frank assessment of the challenges facing farming businesses up and down the country. Ms Coffey insisted that her department is “well-rooted” in farming and rural affairs and said that the government understands the need to bolster UK food security.

For Food and Drink Sector Council Chair Tim Smith CBE, a prosperous and sustainable farming sector is about “reconnecting food production and consumption”, allowing consumers to better understand where their food comes from and how is produced.

Mr Smith stressed that there would need to be much greater collaboration between policymakers, stakeholders and farming businesses and identified a need to break down cross-departmental barriers to deliver a truly coherent and long-term approach to food and farming policy.

As such, one recommendation offered by Mr Smith is the establishment of a “Cabinet Sub-Committee on food security” to ensure leadership on this issue and that food production is a thread that runs through all government policy.

Fairness in farming

Throughout the Q&A session, the panel focused on the need for fairness in the farming sector. Minette welcomed the government’s acknowledgment of food security as a national priority and said that “we want to see a fair approach to trade, and a fair approach to our contractual relationships with retailers”.

Ms Coffey echoed this call for fairness in the food sector and emphasised her desire to see farmers fairly rewarded at the farm gate for their hard work producing high quality, nutritious food. The Secretary of State declared that “farming does need to be profitable and a lot of that is to do with fairness”. Although Coffey said that it is not the role of government to interfere in price setting, she did share Minette’s desire to see greater fairness throughout the supply chain.

The issue of fairness for British farmers in trade policy featured heavily in the discussion with Mr Smith stating that we should never allow for the importation of food that is produced to standards and practices that would be illegal in the UK. On environmental and welfare standards, Mr Smith declared that “it must never be a race to the bottom”.

Responding to controversial remarks made by a Conservative MP earlier that day advocating for cheaper, hormone-treated beef to be imported from Australia, the Secretary of State was resolute that she will never allow such products to land on British shelves. Ms Coffey joined the panel in condemning the comments and reassured farmers that standards in trade will always protect British farmers.

Members’ questions

Members were able to put questions to the panel on the pressing issues facing farmers today.

In her characteristically frank style, Ms Coffey sought to give confidence to farmers with a number of robust statements. This included a categoric ruling out of right to roam, greater incentives for young, entrant farmers, a promise to follow the science on biosecurity and a commitment to rollout the ELMs at pace.

Unsurprisingly, Minette emphasised that the NFU will continue to hold the Prime Minister to account on his commitments to deliver a food security summit in No.10 every year, an annual assessment of UK food security to review progress, and a statutory target for food security to ensure food production is properly valued as a public good.


“We want to see a fair approach to trade, and a fair approach to our contractual relationships with retailers”.

NFU President Minette Batters

Similarly, veteran Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP asked the Secretary of State whether her government will ensure land is not unnecessarily taken out of food production for carbon offsetting by large corporations. Keen to reassure the room that food remains the central priority of government farming policy, Ms Coffey declared that “our long-term vision has to be about keeping food production as the primary purpose of farming”.

Moving forward

The NFU President also applauded the work of Dr Luke Evans MP and his campaign to introduce a Buy British Button section on supermarket websites. Minette shared her belief that this would allow consumers to make informed decisions and force transparency from the retailers. The Secretary of State was very supportive of this and said that work is ongoing to realise this ambition.

As the event drew to a close, the Secretary of State took the opportunity to recognise that this would be Minette Batters’ final Conservative Party conference as NFU President and paid tribute to her leadership in the farming sector.

The panel

Kate McCann

Political Editor at Times Radio

Kate McCann is currently political editor of Times Radio and has held the post since July 2023.

Kate provides comment and analysis on programmes across Times Radio’s schedule, as well as breaking political stories and interviews on the station. 

She had previously joined TalkTV for its launch in April 2022 as political editor, leaving her role as Sky News political correspondent which she had held for four years. Before moving into broadcast journalism, she was senior political correspondent at The Telegraph for three years and previously spent time as Whitehall correspondent for The Sun. Kate started her career in Westminster as a Parliamentary Researcher.

Minette Batters

Former NFU President

Minette runs a tenanted family farm in Wiltshire.  The mixed farming business includes a 100-cow continental cross suckler herd, as well as sheep and arable.

Diversification includes the conversion of a 17th century tithe barn into a wedding and corporate events venue, and horse liveries. Minette co-founded the campaigning initiatives 'Ladies in Beef' and the 'Great British Beef Week'.

Campaigning on behalf of NFU members about the importance of British food and farming has been a key driver for Minette throughout her time at the NFU. In 2020 she led one of the most successful petitions ever, bringing together a coalition of chefs, including Jamie Oliver, farmers, environmentalists, consumer groups and animal welfare experts – resulting in over one million people signing the NFU food standards petition. She has also regularly engaged with different media genres including appearances on Desert Island Discs, Question Time, and Any Questions.

She has been an NFU member from grassroots through to County Chair; she served as Wiltshire’s Council delegate and also as Regional Board Chair for the South West. Minette has also been a member of NFU Governance Board and served as NFU Deputy President for four years from 2014 to 2018, before being elected as president in February 2018. Minette is also an ambassador of Farm Africa and was made a Deputy Lieutenant to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 2021.

Officeholder responsibilities 

  • Trade and standards
  • EU and international relations
  • Taxation and fiscal policy
  • Science and research and development
  • Food supply chain (fair dealing, Markets and Authorities, competition, regulation)
  • Food service
  • AHDB
  • Levelling up
  • Education

Thérèse Coffey served as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs between 25 October 2022 and 13 November 2023.

She was previously Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Deputy Prime Minister, between 6 September 2022 and 25 October 2022.

Ms Coffey was also Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions between 8 September 2019 and 6 September 2022 and Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs between 25 July 2019 and 8 September 2019.

She was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 17 July 2016 to 25 July 2019. She was elected the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal in May 2010.

Tim J Smith CBE

Food and Drink Sector Council Chair

Tim J Smith CBE was appointed Chair of the Food and Drink Sector Council in August 2022.

Tim leads the Council’s work to create change within the sector, build a more productive and sustainable food and drink system and look for new opportunities for co-operation within the wider government agenda. As part of his work with the Council, Tim will be delivering some of the measures outlined within the Government’s Food Strategy.

For over three decades Tim held leading roles at several manufacturers in the food sector including Northern Foods, Sara Lee, Express Dairies and latterly Arla Foods where he was CEO. Smith remains the Chairman of Cranswick plc. Between 2008 and 2012, Tim served as Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

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