The president of the National Farmers’ Union has hit out at “completely out of touch” suggestions from a senior government adviser that the UK does not need its own agricultural sector.
There were reports that Treasury official Dr Tim Leunig claimed the food sector was not “critically important” to the country’s economy – and that agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”.
In leaked emails published in The Mail on Sunday, the economic adviser to the chancellor Rishi Sunak is reported to have said ministers could follow the example of Singapore, which is “rich without having its own agricultural sector”.
The agriculture and fishing sectors combined represent less than 1 per cent of the UK’s economy. But rural and coastal communities voted out in large numbers during the 2016 referendum after the Vote Leave campaign argued that farmers and fishermen would be better off once free of EU rules.
The government distanced itself from the official’s comments, adding: “We have made it clear the comments are not in line with government policy.”
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge that comparisons to Singapore were “completely out of touch with where this country is”.
She added: “There is a moral imperative for us to be able to produce food in this country. So absolutely we need our famers, and of course we are the bedrock of the largest manufacturing sector providing all those raw ingredients.
“Clearly, there is a cold economic case. But you have to look at the wider aspect of all of this: farms are the backbone of rural Britain. Surely the last thing we want to go to is importing cheaper, raw ingredients produced to lower standards. We export our conscience and our production.”
Last week, the environment secretary George Eustice came in for criticism after he refused to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being imported from the US as part of a trade agreement with Washington.
Fishermen also fear promises made to them about increased catch quotas and controlling who fishes in British waters could be traded in exchange for market access during the talks with the EU, which are due to begin next week.
Brussels has made clear it wants little to change in terms of access for European boats and quota allocation once the transition period is over in December.
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