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Did Rishi have a plan for the future of British Food?

By Drew Aspinwall
20 February 2024
Public Affairs
conservative party

Today Rishi Sunak was the first Prime Minister to attend the NFU National Conference since Gordon Brown addressed the conference 16 years ago. The two-day event in Birmingham also marks the end of Minette Batters’ decade long tenure at the helm of the union that represents more than 45,000 farming and growing businesses in the UK.

As president, Batters said she had worked with four Prime Ministers, three in one year, and six Defra Secretaries of State. She reflected on the turbulent times which included the prospect of a ‘no deal Brexit’, Covid-19, and then most recently the proposed UK/Canada free trade agreement which could have resulted in hormone-treated beef landing on UK shelves. Batters praised the government, for sticking by their commitments to not accept hormone-treated beef or chlorine wash chicken and having the courage to walk away from the deal with Canada.

Most recently we have seen the launch of the ‘No Farmers, No Food’ campaign, which aims build support and lobby governments into making policies that improve the livelihoods of farmers and their families. In Mid Wales yesterday, over 100 tractors formed a go-slow protest outside a Welsh Labour leadership hustings in opposition to the Sustainable Farming Scheme. The proposed scheme would commit farmers in Wales to plant 10% of their land with trees and then put another 10% aside for nature. Failure to do so would result in farms not receiving an annual payment known as Universal Baseline Payment for the way they manage the business and environment.

It has also been widely reported that the pressure on farmers, due to high prices of fertiliser, fuel, cheap imports, supply chain issues and uncertainty over legislation, is at an all-time high with many multi-generational farms now at being at risk of closure, never to return.

Backing this up, was the timely news that government financial analysis, which showed that many hill farmers were only able to survive due to a EU payment scheme and set to end in 3 years’ time, was buried as the data contained only bad news for the industry.

So with this backdrop how did the Prime Minister fair?

He went in bold, telling farmers “I’ve got your back” and announced a package of government support for the sector, in the areas of technology and productivity schemes. He did acknowledge that farming was facing the biggest changes for a generation and pledged that food security would never be taken for granted.

The PM appears to have been receptive to the NFU’s ongoing Food Security campaign, by announcing a new annual data and monitor tool, in the form of a UK-wide Food Security Index. Whilst no one would argue with that concept; many farmers will likely question the merits of more automation on their farms; which only really benefits large scale crop harvesting and dairy herds.

For many farmers news that roof-top solar could be funded to help with their energy costs and that the ‘Clarkson Clause’ now has the ear of the PM, will leave them with much to be excited about. New rules that will cut red tape around planning, so farmers can change the use of building in order to diversify their businesses, will be the stand out message from the  conference hall today.

However, the obvious criticism is that this comes somewhat too little too late to repair the Conservative’s relationship with rural voters. Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Reed, will speak to the conference tomorrow, fresh from a Sunday media love in where he presented Labour’s fresh pitch to the countryside.

NFU Conference: