Our open letter to Conservative Party leadership candidates

An image of NFU President Minette Batters standing in a field next to a bale of hay

NFU President Minette Batters has written to both Rishi Sunak MP and Liz Truss MP, as they enter the latter stages of the Conservative Party leadership contest. Both candidates have now replied and Rishi Sunak held his hustings at NFU HQ on 19 August. We've added Liz Truss' response to this page and she will attend a virtual hustings on 1 September. 

Boris Johnson's successor as leader of the Conservative Party, and the future Prime Minister, will be announced on 5 September 2022.

NFU President Minette Batters has written to the two remaining candidates, outlining the key issues they need to tackle for British food and farming.

You can read the letter in full below.

The NFU letter to the leadership candidates

Given the agricultural constituency you represent, you already know how much British farmers matter. We provide the foundation for the country’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, while at the same time acting as custodians of the iconic British landscape. During the pandemic we worked around the clock as key workers to keep the nation fed, and farming is central to a thriving rural economy, as well as the country’s net zero ambitions.

With the right ingredients and in partnership with government, British farmers can deliver even more in the future. I am therefore writing on behalf of the 55,000 farmers and growers across England and Wales that the NFU represents, to set out the key priorities for our sector for the next Prime Minister.

Both the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine has highlighted just how important domestic food production is. The government’s Food Strategy, published in June, represented a clear milestone as it recognised that food production is a core part of our nation’s resilience. In order to deliver on the ambitions within the Food Strategy, the NFU wants to see food production taken seriously across Whitehall through the commitment to:  

  1. A statutory underpinning of food production that looks to maintain current levels of self-sufficiency and food production and ensures that all government departments give due regard to the impact of policies on the country’s ability to produce food.
  2. Further refocusing of funding within the Agricultural Transition Plan towards sustainable food production, underpinned by a multiannual funding commitment.
  3. A more certain and predictable regulatory environment specifically tailored to the UK, one that manages risk while providing suitable incentives and sufficient freedom for farmers and growers to invest in their businesses and contribute to UK food security.
  4. A planning system that enables farm businesses to boost productivity and help in our collective goal to achieve net zero.
  5. An immigration system that recognises the specific needs and challenges of agriculture and horticulture in sourcing the labour it needs and provides certainty for businesses, particularly horticultural businesses where the government recognises there are huge opportunities for growth.
  6. An international trade strategy that enables agriculture to achieve the NFU’s ambition of growing our food and drink exports from 30% by 2030 and ensures that existing high animal welfare and environmental standards in the UK are not undermined by lower standard imports.

Spiralling input costs, uncertainty about future support schemes and a focus on species reintroduction at such a critical time means that farmers’ confidence about the future is low. My members will therefore be looking to you during this campaign to see what you will offer our sector and the rural areas we underpin.

I am confident that with the right policies and by working together, farmers can achieve so much for our country – not just by providing high quality and climate-friendly food, but also protecting and enhancing our environment. We are ambitious to deliver on all fronts but that ambition must be matched with honesty and certainty about the future.

With best wishes for the campaign ahead.  

Minette Batters
NFU President

Rishi Sunak's reply

PM-hopeful, Rishi Sunak outlines his commitment to British farmers in his reply to Minette Batters' letter.

Mr Sunak has also agreed to take part in a hustings on the issues important to farmers.

1 August 2022

Dear Minette,

Thank you for your letter of 27 July, setting out your priorities for the farming sector.

As you know, I represent a large number of farmers in my own constituency. I know that times are tough at the moment; the rise in global gas prices has led to a dramatic increase in input costs including manufactured fertiliser, livestock feed, fuel and energy. I want to help; I hope that by bringing forward 50% of the BPS payment we have given farmers some confidence, but I am very willing to listen if there are other measures that we should be taking.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank your members, and the wider food supply chain, for everything that they did to keep the nation fed during the pandemic. They were the unsung heroes of the pandemic and we owe them a debt of gratitude.I want to address each of the points you have raised in turn, and I would also be delighted to commit to a hustings.

Food production and self sufficiency
Recent events have highlighted the importance of domestic food production; it gives us national resilience. I will establish a new food security target, including a statutory duty to monitor and report on domestic food production levels annually. I will chair a new, UK-wide annual food security summit at 10 Downing Street, which I would very much seek to do in partnership with the NFU and stakeholders from across the UK.I will also introduce a new target for public sector organisations to buy 50% of their food locally, to back British farmers and improve sustainability. I will aggressively champion UK food and drink, including the environmental and health benefits of UK-produced meat, through a new advertising campaign and by working with British supermarkets. I will also use the powers we have under the Agriculture Act to ensure that supply chains are made fairer.

Funding within the agricultural transition
I will maintain the farming budget across the United Kingdom. Within the agricultural transition, I am clear that the allocation of funding should be led by demand from farmers. A domestic policy allows us to be flexible and adapt to demand as it arises. I want our schemes to support farmers with the decisions that they take for their own businesses.

Regulatory environment
Outside the European Union, we can do much better for our farmers. We have already abolished the three crop rule and the greening requirements. Under our domestic regime, we will work with farmers and ensure that regulation and enforcement are proportionate. I will not allow a system that involves dumping a rulebook on farmers from on-high and hitting them with grossly disproportionate fines for minor errors.

I am committed to a more certain and regulatory environment that is tailored to the UK and I will work with farmers and stakeholders to ensure that it works. I know that farming carries significant risks; an episode of bad weather or an outbreak of animal disease can have devastating consequences. I want to help farmers manage those risks to ensure that they have the confidence to invest in their businesses.

Planning system
I will make sure that high-quality farmland is kept in production and not used for housing, ‘rewilding’ or large-scale solar farms. I will review planning rules to ensure that high-quality farmland is sufficiently protected, that ‘rewilding’ only occurs where it would have no or
minimal impact on food production, and that large-scale solar farms cannot be built on best and most versatile agricultural land.

I am pleased that an additional 10,000 visas have been made available this year, but I want to make sure that a system is in place that offers farmers the certainty that they need. I will keep labour requirements under review and I will make sure that support is in place to help the sector move ahead with automation to ease pressures on labour supply.

International trade
I know that farmers are concerned by some of the trade deals that have been struck, including with Australia. I will make farmers a priority in all future trade deals. On my watch, we won’t rush through trade deals at the expense of farmers. They will take as long as they take and we won’t water down our standards. We will also build on existing support mechanisms to help farmers export to the world’s emerging markets. We will maintain the highest standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety.

Because farming communities are a priority for me, I intend to reintroduce the role of the UK Rural Advocate and increase representation of farmers at all levels of government.

I hope that this information is helpful, and I look forward to the hustings which will give us an
opportunity to discuss my plans for farming in more detail.

With best wishes,

The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP

Liz Truss' reply

PM candidate, Liz Truss sets out her commitment to British farmers in her reply to Minette Batters' letter.

16 August 2022

Dear Minette,

Thank you for your letter on behalf of your members. I am sorry for the delay in replying.

As a Norfolk MP and a former Environment Secretary, I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand the important work that farmers and growers do for our whole country day-in, day-out. The sector’s response to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and growing cost of living pressures - all against their own labour challenges, spiralling input costs and an exceptionally dry summer - continues to be remarkable.

I am extremely grateful to you and your members for your sterling efforts in feeding the nation, and for taking the time to set out your priorities. If I may, I’ll take each of your points in turn:

Self-sufficiency and Food Production - Recent events only serve to reinforce the importance of a high-quality and affordable supply of British food. That’s why I want to ensure we have the policies in place to enable British farmers to be more competitive, freeing them up to grow more sustainable and high quality British food - boosting our nation's food security. We have some of the best growing conditions in the world and I think there are real growth opportunities in areas such as horticulture which we should be taking advantage of.

I’d also like to see us take a more holistic approach to food policy across Whitehall and its agencies. While some progress has been made in recent years I believe that there is much more that can be done to harness, for example, the public sector’s support for fresh and seasonal produce. More sustainable and local food being served in our schools, prisons and hospitals is surely a win-win situation for British farmers, those using our public services, and the environment as a whole.

Funding - I recognise the twin role that farmers play as food producers and environmental stewards, and agree that it is vital that the farming budget is maintained.

As the Environmental Land Management schemes are rolled out, I want to work closely with industry to ensure that they are fit for purpose and that farmers are able to access these schemes, while producing food sustainably and delivering robust environmental outputs. With over 70% of the UK’s land farmed in some way it is crucial we get these schemes right.

Regulatory Environment - I start from the position of trusting farmers and I see our departure from the EU as a once in a lifetime opportunity to remove onerous EU regulations and red tape which have held our farmers back, and to replace them with a regime which is tailored to the UK’s needs and provides greater certainty.

We must of course continue to safeguard our worldwide reputation for high-quality, sustainable and safe food but we must do this in a way that reduces the regulatory burden on farmers. I believe that we can achieve this by demonstrating greater flexibility in how regulations are applied, making more use of data and, above all, expanding the role of earned recognition to recognise those farmers who do the right thing time and time again.

By removing red tape we can also make it easier for British farmers to adopt, develop and invest in the latest farming technology and infrastructure. Whether it’s the EU regulations that continue to restrict agricultural drone use or precision breeding technologies, I want our farmers to be able to unleash their competitive advantage and create the agriculture industry of the future.

Planning system - As we seek to ensure the future vibrancy of our rural communities, our local villages and businesses should be able to grow - be it a couple of houses for local workers or a new pack house for a successful farm business - without taking away from the special character of these areas. That is why I will scrap Whitehall-imposed top-down housing targets and place planning powers back in the hands of local people who know their communities best, allowing them to meet local needs. It is also critical that we prioritise the use of our prime agricultural land for food production, and not for other projects which fail to contribute to the nation’s food security.

Labour needs - I recognise the importance of seasonal workers to our domestic farmers and growing businesses, and will make it easier for them to access the workers they need.

As announced during the campaign, I will work with the industry to co-design a new scheme that recognises the practicalities of the continuing demand for seasonal labour in areas as diverse as pork, poultry and horticulture. In the short term, this means we will extend the seasonal worker scheme and, if necessary, add more jobs to the Skilled Occupation List. In the longer term, we will prioritise and promote the adoption of labour-saving technologies.

International Trade Strategy - I am proud of our world-leading food and drink, with its high-quality standards of provenance, safety and animal welfare. As Defra and International Trade secretaries I spent a large amount of my time securing market access for British producers, such as getting British beef back onto US dining tables and promoting British food and drink through the GREAT campaign.

I am very keen that we continue to capitalise, and work together, on the growing appetite for our amazing products around the world. Like you, I believe that each and every trade deal must be approached in a way that safeguards our high standards and looked at on a case by case basis.

I hope that my responses are helpful and thank you, again, for taking the time to write.

Best wishes,

Rt Hon Liz Truss MP

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