A united effort to address the volatility facing the agricultural sector is key to ensuring the UK can feed its growing population, the opening day of NFU’s annual conference heard.
From Government policy to tackle bovine TB and ensuring regulations over plant protections products are based on sound science, to the prospect of a dairy futures market and more funding for new entrants - the industry and politicians must work together.
In his first conference speech since being elected as the union’s president, Meurig Raymond issued a stark warning over falling levels of self-sufficiency.
Unless action is taken now, UK farmers could be supplying less than half the UK’s food within a few decades, he told the conference in Birmingham.
Mr Raymond said: “In 1984 we produced more than 80 per cent of what we consumed in this country. If you look at it this way, our national cupboard lasted us well into the autumn. By 2013 the cupboard was bare by August 7. If we go on like this we will run out by mid-summer.”
He said the UK consumer ‘expected to buy British food’. “Yet if nothing is done it will be far more difficult to achieve,” he added.
“We will become ever more reliant on the rest of the world to produce our food.”
Mr Raymond stressed the importance of the forthcoming General Election to both the conference and farming’s wider future.
“I do not exaggerate when I say, for farming, this is shaping up to be one of the most important elections we have ever faced,” he said.
Unveiling a long-term economic plan for the industry, Environment Secretary Liz Truss identified four priorities, including improving the resilience of the industry in the face of volatile global markets, opening up new markets at home and abroad, and simplifying EU regulations to free up food producers to innovate and grow their businesses.
The Minister also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to reducing bovine TB.
She added: “Bovine TB is the greatest threat to our beef and dairy industry endangering our food security. That’s why this Government and any future Conservative Government will take the difficult decisions to deal with the disease.
“We will not let up, whatever complaints we get from protest groups. We’re in it for the long haul. We will not walk away.”
Ms Truss highlighted the Government’s work to support struggling dairy farmers, by working with HMRC to delay the impact of tax bills and exploring the idea of extending the tax-averaging period for farmers from two to five years.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan ruled out any increase to the milk intervention price during his appearance at the NFU conference.
Mr Hogan was asked by farmers in the audience to justify previous comments that the EU dairy sector is not in crisis and explain the point of an intervention price currently worth as little as 16ppl.
Mr Hogan stressed his comments referred to the situation at EU level, where he said prices have largely held up and acknowledged the problems facing UK producers.
But he described intervention as a ‘short-term’ solution that he insisted was ‘not the answer to the industry’s problems.
“There is no way I can justify an increase to the intervention price when the average EU price stands at €0.33/litre.
Despite coming under pressure from the UK industry and politicians to increase the intervention price, he said he preferred to pursue long-term solutions like developing new export opportunities.
Mr Hogan was more supportive when questioned on the Commission’s approach to pesticide regulation.
While his agriculture remit does not cover pesticide regulation, he made it clear he backed regulation underpinned by sound science which provides farmers with the products they need to support food production.
Defra Secretary Liz Truss also gave her support to the industry’s ‘Healthy Harvest’ campaign, stressing that it was vital decisions on pesticides were ‘proportionate and based on the science’.
She cited estimates that up to one in three pesticides approved for use in the UK were under threat from bans or ‘severe restrictions’ from Brussels.
“We must make sure our farmers have access to the latest science technology,” she added