NFU22: Read Minette Batters' Conference speech in full

22 February 2022

Minette Batters' delivers her NFU Conference 2022 opening address

© NFU/Jonathan Hipkiss

In her opening address at NFU Conference 2022, Minette Batters talked about threats, challenges and opportunities that lay ahead, the need for a coherent government plan and introduced the NFU's report, British Farming: A Blueprint for the Future. Read her speech in full here.

Good morning Conference. And can I say how good it feels to have everyone in this room together. And I know that many of you are feeling exactly the same. And well done to everyone who’s made it here from those storm hit areas of the country – especially those without electricity and hot running water as I was.. and actually still am!

The last year has been a rollercoaster ride and we’ve all, I’m sure, had highs and lows. 

As the first NFU President to have had a twitter account my highs and lows may have perhaps become more public than previous Presidents. And many of you will have witnessed first-hand the challenges – and the joys – this role brings as we’ve navigated the pandemic whilst trying to steer government into creating a future agricultural policy that delivers for British farming. 

Only a couple of weeks ago I summed up one of my most frustrating days to date after dealing with major issues which affect the future of all our farms… to be repeatedly told by members of the UK government just to be more positive.

I want to be clear from the outset. There is a lot to be positive about. To be proud of.

“Do we want and expect different things from our land than the rest of the world? A pretty park at home while we tuck into IMPORTED food produced in extremely intensive ways with huge environmental impact somewhere else?”

And to believe in.

  • Our high standards of food production.
  • Our net zero ambitions.
  • Our education programme which reached a third of a million children last year.

And – as Jeremy Clarkson has demonstrated – farming is reaching a whole new audience. And massive thanks to Jeremy for everything he’s done to put farming on the map and for his support of our Back British Farming Campaign. 

But government does need to understand that positivity by itself does not put money on the bottom line.

Being proud of being a farmer and growing high quality food does not, by itself, address the unfairness in the supply chain.

And simply ‘believing’ does not create a strong future for British food production.

We need certainty, commitment and consistency.

We need a plan that pre-empts crises… rather than repeatedly running into them. The current situation in the pig sector should have – and could have – been avoided. There are currently 200 thousand pigs on contract backed up on farm. Forty thousand healthy pigs have been culled and simply thrown away. This, truly, is an utter disgrace and a disaster for the pig industry. This is down to government’s poorly designed change to immigration policy and what I can only say appears to be their total lack of understanding of how food production works and what it needs. 

Being proud of being a farmer and growing high quality food does not, by itself, address the unfairness in the supply chain.

And simply ‘believing’ does not create a strong future for British food production.

We need certainty, commitment and consistency.

We need a plan that pre-empts crises… rather than repeatedly running into them. The current situation in the pig sector should have – and could have – been avoided. There are currently 200 thousand pigs on contract backed up on farm. Forty thousand healthy pigs have been culled and simply thrown away. This, truly, is an utter disgrace and a disaster for the pig industry. This is down to government’s poorly designed change to immigration policy and what I can only say appears to be their total lack of understanding of how food production works and what it needs. 

The pain and emotional anger from those pig farmers who feel utterly let down and abandoned is palpable. Some are approaching debts of a million pounds now and every week it gets worse. It hurts.

We are continuing to work with the National Pig Association to support those farmers and push government to help find a way forward. But it should not have come to this.

Situations like this make me more and more determined to shape a new and better future for not only how we produce our food, but how we achieve a fair return for it.

I want to set out my thoughts on the threats, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

Right now, the eyes of the world are currently focusing on the growing tension and potential war between Russia and Ukraine, which we all desperately hope will be avoided. I would hope there are some in government who are taking note that these two countries produce 30% of global wheat exports. Russia recently imposed a two-month block on exports of ammonium nitrate. What will this mean for global food production, what will this mean for Britain?

And whilst we all hope that the end is in sight for the pandemic, we are potentially at the start of another crisis around the cost of living and inflation. It’s a stark fact in the 12 months to November 2021, the price index for agricultural inputs increased by over 18%. Many of us are experiencing inflation in fertiliser of around 200%.

We must share this pain throughout the food chain. It cannot be left for farmers and growers to take the hit. 

Yet while there is a cost-of-living crisis looming and an increasingly unstable world… the UK government’s energy and ambition for our countryside seems to be almost ENTIRELY focused on anything other than domestic food production. Whether it’s reintroduction of species; an ambition to set 30% of our land aside; or a payment system almost in opposition to food production. 

What’s the plan for the food we eat? Where will we get it and at what price?

This country needs a strategy and a clear vision for what we expect from British farming.

Do we want and expect different things from our land than the rest of the world? A pretty park at home while we tuck into IMPORTED food produced in extremely intensive ways with huge environmental impact somewhere else? 

Are we turning a blind eye to the impact of global food production while we pursue a domestic vision of a chocolate box countryside?

We have completely contradictory government policies: 

  • Raising the bar for environmental standards at home but pursuing trade deals which support lower standards overseas. 
  • Claiming to value domestic food production but making it difficult to find workers to harvest or process it. 
  • Stating there are many export opportunities for British food but failing to prioritise the resources to open up those new markets.

What does government want? We know what the British people want. A million people signed our petition supporting British farming and over half a million people are NFU Back British Farming Supporters. Food is valued by the British people. Those people vote for our MPs – and our government – to represent their views.

Delivering for society requires the best innovation, new technology and world leading R&D.

But let’s not forget that all over the country farmers are already re-generating the soil health needed for modern agriculture and nature to thrive.

Only three weeks ago I visited the descendants of Turnip Townesend at Raynam Hall in Norfolk. They are part of five Norfolk farming businesses that founded Catalyst Farming and brought 700 fields together, in all 7000 hectares. These businesses are united by a belief in harnessing the power of their data to better inform decision making, continually questioning and fine-tuning their farming; lowering chemical inputs, increasing yield and profit.

And it’s not just the arable east, when I visited Stuart and Leanne Fairfax in the Derbyshire Peak District with the Prime Minister, they too are leading the charge in what modern-day agriculture can achieve.  As upland tenant farmers in higher tier countryside stewardship they’re using the best genetics and health status on their hardy Swaledale ewes, crossing them with blue faced Leicester rams to produce a hardy north country mule for lowland farmers – the classic stratified sheep system.

These types of businesses are the future.

If government and environmental NGOs want to achieve more for the environment, then there is only ONE solution, we need policies and investment into the New World optimism of agriculture.

What exactly do I mean by that? To aim for the very best policies and data that will enable sustainable food production….

Food and environment should not be seen as competitors. They are partners. And our destiny as farmers depends on the political realisation of that simple fact.

The reason I’ve had to underline in bold the importance of food production is that many don’t seem to realise how precarious our food system is. The fact that there are such huge levels of foreign investment: Arla, Mueller, ABP, Dunbia are only here in the UK because the raw ingredients are produced here.

I know all of those businesses will back me in saying the time to create a plan is now…not when supermarket shelves are empty…

This is why today we are launching our own Blueprint for the future.  

This should be an exciting time. I’m an optimist, but conference… I’m also increasingly impatient at having to explain the same problems year after year and having to present workable solutions day after day… only for them to be ignored as we hit the next crisis.

And there is a looming crisis happening in our horticultural sector as new rules from the Home Office announced last week  could mean a 38% increase in the compulsory wage rate that our growers will have to fund. Conference this means there is a real risk of further food inflation… and of British growers going out of business. I am asking the Home Office to urgently rethink this policy which, if implemented, will be a huge mistake.

It doesn’t have to be like this… it shouldn’t be a fight…

It’s not like this elsewhere. Look at Ireland where Origin Green is a fantastic success story. The Irish government has been the catalyst for convening the food chain to work in partnership with them to create a sustainable plan for Irish agriculture which delivers domestically and globally. We are up for the same here, we could do it.

Effective policies are created by people who have really listened and understood how rules dreamt up in a Whitehall office will work in a field.

It doesn’t happen that much at the moment.

So, I hope that the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the SFI, will be the bedrock of the new English environmental land management programme. But I fear it will be under funded.  In summer 2020 I drew all farming organisations together to develop our Sustainable Food and Farming Scheme, then we agreed at least 65% of funding should go to the SFI strand. So, I’m incredulous to hear the Secretary of State suggest recently that only a third of the ELM budget will go to SFI, a scheme he intends to be taken up across 70% of farms!

This summer Defra should launch the first four standards of the SFI, and rightly, soil will be amongst the first of these standards. I hope it is well received – it’s long overdue. I hope it rewards farmers and growers for good soil management, because that is the basis of climate-friendly food production.

And I hope that Defra have acted on the work NFU commissioned from Andersons, which showed that draft versions of the SFI barely produced a profit for farmers.  

And… within Wales the introduction of the Agricultural Bill to the Welsh Parliament in the first half of the year is likely to be a watershed moment for Welsh farming, providing the framework for a future agricultural policy and support schemes in the future.

The Welsh and Scottish governments have committed to continue with the current levels of BPS until 2024. This means we have a two-tier approach to farm support in the UK. How is it right that farmers in England are being treated differently to the rest of the UK?

Why is this important?

It’s important  because we need a fair, stable and commercially viable platform for this agricultural transition. One that enables farmers and growers to be sustainable in all senses – environmentally, socially and – fundamentally – economically.

And one that gives us strong foundations to trade and compete globally. 

We know there are unexplored opportunities in global trade. There are many examples of how we have led the world in breed genetics, indeed Aberdeen Angus and Hereford have become the breed of choice across the Globe. Successful international beef production all started here in the UK.

I am pleased, (and relieved) that government has listened to the NFU and will now invest in more agricultural attaches. Boots on the ground to sell our high-quality produce overseas. At conference last year I was exasperated that the UK only had two attaches when we are trying to compete with countries who have many, many more people around the world dedicated to agricultural exports.  In the coming months the UK should have eight agricultural attaches. 

This really is 8 steps in the right direction. 

Now… You all know what I make of the recent Australian trade deal – suffice to say I’d be much happier as an Australian farmer than a British one. The government’s own impact assessment showed a drop in output of 3% for our beef farmers and 5% for lamb producers.

Let’s not make the same mistake again. Negotiators must learn the lessons and ensure our future trade deals are much more balanced and really do secure wins for UK farmers at a time of increasing costs, diminishing BPS payments, and a massive squeeze on labour.

Now, I do want to talk about something which seems to be viewed by some as a dirty word… PROFIT.

Of course, it’s not a dirty word for farmers – it’s essential.  But increasingly I get the impression that farmers are not expected to want to make any profit, that they should somehow be running environmental charities… As I’ve already said, we have some of the most affordable food in the world. 

“Look at Ireland where Origin Green is a fantastic success story. The Irish government has been the catalyst for convening the food chain to work in partnership with them to create a sustainable plan for Irish agriculture which delivers domestically and globally. We are up for the same here, we could do it.”

Our ambition should continue to be that we can produce high quality food for everyone, regardless of income AND act as environmental stewards of the countryside. 

But I struggle to get my head around the fact that I can buy the British ingredients to cook a basic meal for my family for the same price that I’d pay for one medium latte in a coffee shop. That CANNOT be right.

Farmers and their families have the same costs of living as everyone else in the country.  But farmers are price takers, as we all know we cannot set the price for our products. Therefore fairness in the supply chain is vital.  Any pain needs to be shared fairly through the supply chain and not heaped back onto the farm gate.

But times are changing and so must the way our businesses work. We need a new economic model for farming and our countryside.

Why? Water quality, biodiversity and carbon credits are all emerging markets that WILL need help to be defined.

But one thing’s for sure, the new economic model has to have collaboration at its heart. 

On my farm I know through the success of our Avon Valley farmer cluster, where we’ve brought back nesting lapwing to the valley – we could never have done that without the farmers working together. Had we walked away and not farmed these ancient water meadows the lapwing could never have returned. And now the farmers from seven adjoining clusters have come together and formed a cooperative encompassing over 50,000 hectares – it’s farmer led and farmer owned, backed by technical professional expertise and most importantly it has brought tenants and landowners together to establish these new trades.

Farmers are the only working conservationists of the scale needed. Trillions of pounds of ESG funding – aimed at promoting environmental, social and governance factors – is circulating above our heads, looking to invest in the progressive and sustainable sectors of the future. But it’s an emerging sector which lacks integrity. There’s a real opportunity to attract significant investment into UK agriculture and we need to be right at the forefront of that to make sure the money hits the ground.

Agriculture has always been an evolving sector.    

There is a lot to be said for healthy debate and discussion about what we want from our country’s farmers. But it does feel we have devalued farming and food production

For instance, the new position of Chair of the Species reintroduction task force will be remunerated to the tune of £500 per day for 14 days. That’s 7 thousand pounds to fund a committee chair to oversee beavers amongst other things… that may not sound like a lot of money to some but it’s over half a year’s profit for a lowland livestock farmer, averaged on the last three years. And actually if you remove BPS there is no profit on these farms at all. Have we got our priorities right? 

Maybe a lot more people writing desk top policy in an office need to watch the Netflix hit: Kiss the Ground to understand that farmers, green cover, livestock and organic manure are the only way to transform our soils and take back control of global warming. 

Similarly, there is an angry mob which likes to shout loudly that ‘cows are a problem’ without understanding the science behind the carbon cycle, the environmental benefits of grazed pasture-land and, of course, nutrition. 

By the way, the demonisation of cows is often promoted and supported by companies who have a big profit at stake in shifting ultra-processed plant-based proteins. 

Polarised debates are getting us nowhere… and they’re not allowing us to focus on the very real challenges around food supply in the future.

In conclusion conference, there are five things that government, supply chains and farmers need to urgently progress.

  • A dial up dial down immigration policy
  • A properly funded SFI
  • Government and Retailer commitment and investment to buy and sell more British food at home and abroad.
  • To use the powers in the Agriculture Act to enable farmers and growers to trade fairly.
  • A new economic model that drives investment back into the land, ensuring the tenanted sector is not disadvantaged.

Above and beyond everything, we need to all be working to the same objectives, aiming for the same outcome. There needs to be a PLAN. 

A plan which enables Britain to keep on farming and to continue to be world leaders in high quality, safe and sustainable food. Food from your farms.

Thank you conference. 

NFU Conference