Eustice defends farming policy amid accusations Government not focused on food

National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters criticised ‘contradictory’ policies for the agricultural sector.

Emily Beament
Tuesday 22 February 2022 17:35
George Eustice was challenged on Government policy on the pig crisis (Joe Giddens/PA)
George Eustice was challenged on Government policy on the pig crisis (Joe Giddens/PA)

Producing food and protecting nature are two sides of the same coin, and the Government wants to work with farmers to deliver green goals, George Eustice has said.

The Environment Secretary’s comments came after National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters accused the Government of being “focused on anything other than domestic food production” in the countryside.

She told the NFU annual conference in Birmingham that the Government had “completely contradictory” policies for the agricultural sector.

These include raising the bar for environmental standards at home but pursuing trade deals which support lower standards overseas, as well as making it difficult to find workers to harvest or process domestic food, and failing to prioritise resources to open up new export markets, she said.

She called for a plan for British farming to pre-empt crises, rather than repeatedly running into them.

She said: “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.”

A tractor drives alongside a combine harvester (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Ms Batters said: “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?” she asked.

Ms Batters insisted that farming was central to delivering on environmental and climate policies.

But she warned the sustainable farming incentive, payments which the Government hopes 70% of farmers will take up as an environmentally-friendly farming replacement for the EU subsidy regime, would be under-funded.

The Government is shifting the more than £2 billion a year paid to farmers in England from a system largely based on the amount of land farmed to a new “environmental land management scheme” (Elms), with payments under the old scheme already being reduced.

Ministers recently announced that a third of the total budget for Elms would go to the sustainable farming incentive, while a third was for large scale nature schemes including rewilding, and the final third for farm-level wildlife projects.

But Mr Eustice said the budgets for the three areas were not a hard allocation, and he would want to be able to fund elements of the sustainable farming incentive such as good soil stewardship and hedgerow management if farmers wanted to do them.

“We’ve got three schemes and we broadly anticipate eventually the budget going in three directions,” he told journalists at the conference.

A herd of cows (Andrew Matthews/PA)

But he said he did not want to return to the EU’s approach where subsidy money went through different “pillars” with fixed budgets and little flexibility.

“I don’t think it would be right to have to return to sort of EU-style fixed pillar system, where if you had high demand, for instance, in the sustainable farming incentive, you wouldn’t be able to meet it.”

However, if the majority of farmers wanted to be more ambitious and do more wildlife schemes, the Government wanted to be able to fund that option, he added.

Earlier he told the conference that the NFU’s newly published “blueprint” for the future of agriculture was absolutely right in saying food production and environmental protection must go hand-in-hand.

“I’ve always maintained they are two sides of the same coin, we want sustainable agriculture and we want to work with farmers to deliver some of the environmental ambitions that we have,” he said.

He also had to defend the Government’s response to issues in the farming sector, including the crisis in the pig industry which has seen 200,000 pigs back up on farms and 40,000 culled and “thrown away” because of a lack of butchers to process them.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said ministers should use the lever of the Elms scheme, which was “entirely within the Government’s control”, to help farmers facing the problems of post-Brexit trade, labour shortages and high inflation.

He pointed to surpluses in the January public sector finances, and said: “There is money in the system to say to farmers, we can give you a bit of breathing space to go through this uncertain time on cost-of-living, on Brexit, come through the pandemic, that will just give you a bit more time to settle.

“We’ll then look to reform, on a more transitional basis, Elms that helps our biodiversity and our nature.

“That would be a pragmatic thing to do,” he said.

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