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National Farmers’ Union

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the remarks by Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, on 23 February, about the challenges facing farming.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Defra continues to actively engage with the farming industry to deliver the changes we are implementing to support a strong and thriving agricultural sector, including measures to support productivity, raise standards and deliver environmental public goods. The NFU president raised many interesting and wide-ranging points during her keynote conference speech on 22 February, and we welcome them as a constructive contribution to the ongoing debate on the future of our agricultural industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of our nation’s food security in the light of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, mindful of the fact that those two nations between them produce 30% of the world’s wheat? In anticipation of the loss of that harvest, the conflict will have a catastrophic impact. Does he agree that now is the moment for us to give active encouragement and increase support to our hard-working farmers as they try to guarantee our nation’s food supply, particularly given that household bills are going up?

The right reverend Prelate makes some good points. It is now a requirement under the Agriculture Act for the Government to publish where we are on food security in this country, which we did a few weeks ago. It shows that the position has been more or less static for at least two decades, and we want to make sure that we increase the amount of food that we produce locally. It is obviously too early to say what the impact will be on wheat imports as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, but we want to make sure that we are working with other departments so that we are as prepared as possible and that the market is able to adjust itself.

My Lords, will the Minister protect British farmers and consumers by ensuring that those companies that have manipulated falsely markets in their own financial interests, as we have discussed before, are not allowed to operate in the United Kingdom market? I point out to him, as I am sure he knows, that one of those companies with a terrible track record of abuse of market opportunities owns two subsidiaries in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord is right to point out that it is vital that we protect the agricultural and food supply chain. We have powers in the Agriculture Act that allow us to introduce statutory codes of conduct that increase the transparency of business relationships and protect farmers and others from imbalanced commercial terms. We are currently exercising that in a number of sectors.

Will my noble friend join me in celebrating livestock farming in this country? He will be aware that much livestock production is conducted by tenant farmers in upland and common land areas. What future does he envisage for tenant and livestock farming?

I and my ministerial colleagues are keen to sustain jobs in agriculture in our uplands and make sure that the support incentives that we give to farmers are accessible to tenant farmers, freeholders and all the varying degrees of the tenanted sector, that there is a future for livestock farming, and that we continue to produce at high standards in a way that the consumer will want.

Is my noble friend aware that the National Farmers’ Union still believes that Defra has been extremely unable to explain to it the full programme that will follow the removal of production subsidies? Is he also aware that the NFU is fed up with a Government who promised to protect farmers and are now signing trade deals that mean that the farmers will be competed with by countries that are not meeting our climate change obligations?

We as a sovereign nation are negotiating trade deals with other countries. We recognise that some concerns have been expressed around the impact of new trade deals on our farming and food sectors. I reassure the House that our recent agreements with Australia and New Zealand, and, indeed, those with any future partner, will not compromise our high standards. All products imported into the UK will have to, as now, comply with our import requirements.

My Lords, already over 40,000 healthy pigs have been culled and the meat thrown away. A further 200,000 pigs are stranded on farms awaiting slaughter with no one available to slaughter them. Does the Minister agree with Minette that the disaster in the pig industry

“should have, and could have, been avoided”,

and that the situation with pig farmers truly is an utter disgrace?

The situation for pig farmers affected by this is serious. That is why we continue to work very closely with the industry. There was a perfect storm of a loss of exports to the Chinese market, disruption to CO2 supplies and a temporary shortage of labour in the processing sector. We have been working hard on that with the private storage aid, the slaughter incentive payment and a package of measures to address these unique circumstances. On 10 February, my colleague Victoria Prentis chaired a pig summit and she is doing another one on 3 March. We are working really hard to resolve the problems in this sector.

I speak as a member of the Environment and Climate Change Committee and, in fact, in relation to a letter that Minister Prentis sent us in relation to ELMS. She says that the Government are exploring how they can best support leverage of private finance into ELMS. The recent spending review set an ambitious target to raise £500 million in private finance every year to support nature’s recovery to 2027, rising to £1 billion by 2030. Exactly how will the Government commercialise the environmental land management scheme?

I should explain to the House that this is not as part of ELMS. In addition to the support we are giving through the environmental land management scheme, which is ring-fencing the £2.4 billion to the end of this Parliament, we are seriously encouraging green finance similar to the points made in the Question earlier. That is a responsibility I have in Defra. We are taking the publishing of the Treasury’s green taxonomy extremely seriously and making sure that we are focusing what Minette Batters talked about in her speech—the trillions of pounds floating around in the ESG markets —on nature’s recovery and benefiting farmers’ incomes by getting them access to that green finance.

The call to increase wages for seasonal workers is causing concern among fruit and vegetable growers. While it is important to pay a decent wage, this will lead to food inflation. Given the increase in fuel prices already heralded and those likely to arise from the invasion of Ukraine, does the Minister believe that this is the right time to put added strain on the growers and increase the cost of food?

I think there is a bit of confusion, which again was pointed out by Minette Batters in her speech, in relation to the minimum basic payment and the amount of hours a week that seasonal agricultural workers will be working. We are working hard to resolve that with the Home Office and I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness with information on that.

My Lords, where I live in Devon almost every small farmer has given up farming. What are the Government doing to help small farmers?

The common agricultural policy and the basic payment scheme were, and to an extent still are, not small-farmer friendly. We want to make sure that the environmental land management scheme is much more focused on supporting smaller farms. I have visited farmers on the edge of Dartmoor who rent 100 or 200 acres and have grazing rights on Dartmoor. I realise the difficulty they have in gaining a living from their activities. We want to make sure that they have a living, and that the whole support network that we are providing and the addition of green finance will help them as much as it will help other farmers.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what has happened in Europe in the last week should be a warning for us, because the environmental schemes that we have just passed through this House in two Bills are inevitably going to lead to a reduction in the amount of land actually used for farming for food? What is happening indicates that we cannot rely simply on being able to buy cheaper food from other countries. Will he commit to maintaining the amount of land still used for farming and to encouraging food as the primary enterprise of farmers?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point and it was well made in Minette Batters’s speech at the conference. I entirely agree with her that we do not want to create some sort of idyllic garden in the countryside and export our carbon and other footprints to other countries with worse livestock and environmental standards. We want to continue to see farmers producing food of the highest possible quality, and that is what underpins our reforms.