This article was originally published on 30 January. It is being repromoted today as the NFU’s annual conference returns to the ICC in Birmingham. The theme this year is ‘Feeding a Changing World’.
After years of doubts and delay, last week the government presented details of how UK farmers will be paid post-Brexit. Instead of sticking with the EU’s system of subsidies based on land area, the government pledged to put “environmental protection and enhancement first”, as Michael Gove put it when he was environment secretary in 2017. Now farmers will be able to receive funding for a range of actions that support nature, from managing hedgerows to restoring peatlands and avoiding insecticide use. But while the new schemes aim to reform British agriculture for an age grappling with climate change, they may end up being a compromise that pleases no-one.
Environmentalists warn that the planned £2.4bn in government incentives will give farmers only a fraction of the support they need to restore the nation’s depleted soils, woods and waterways (and meet the targets set under a new 5-year Environmental Improvement Plan). Meanwhile, for Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales, “there’s still a huge amount of concern that these schemes are seemingly not designed to be profitable at all” for those who work the land.
Even before the war in Ukraine caused the cost of energy and fertiliser to soar, the nation’s farmers were badly struggling. Many voted to leave the EU hoping that doing so would bring independence from stifling bureaucracy, but have been met instead by disadvantageous trade agreements, labour shortages and new varieties of form-filling. And while rising prices are leaving millions in food poverty, farmers can receive less than 1 per cent of the profit outlets take on their produce. Britain’s biodiversity, meanwhile, is among the most depleted in the world, according to a study by the Natural History Museum.
“Food security, not just here, but globally, is at a tipping point,” Batters told Spotlight over the phone last Friday. “We must now take food security seriously and not just pay lip service to it.” Shortages of tomatoes, peppers and field vegetables are set to follow the recent shortage of eggs.
For nine years Batters, 56, has been at the forefront the industry’s attempt to turn itself around, first as the NFU’s deputy president, then, since 2018, as its first female leader. In that time she has earned a reputation as a formidable operator, mixing the rooted inheritance of her family’s rented beef farm in Wiltshire, which she now runs, with a career as a Cordon Bleu chef and owner of a catering company. Her Desert Island Discs choices ranged from the power ballad “Eye of the Tiger” to Katherine Jenkins’s rendition of the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country”.
Batters’s ability to make diversification seem like a glamorous choice rather than a necessity for farmers’ survival has arguably helped her to pull others along with her. Before her the idea of climate change was scorned by many in the community; this year it dominated panels at the industry’s annual conference in Oxford. The NFU’s target of reducing agricultural emissions to net zero by 2040 is ten years ahead of the national ambition, and Batters is proud her organisation has “laid the gauntlet down”.
Climate change means farmers “are in the last chance saloon”, she told me when we met at the conference in early January, but the government’s approach is not underpinned by sufficient “scientific rigour”. Helping farmers to measure their soil health baselines and carbon sequestration potential is essential to this, she argues, which the new reforms do not address.
Indeed, lack of certainty over government policy is stoking old tensions between those advocating for the protection of nature and those advocating for farming. The split plays out in Oxford each year, with tweed-laden delegates with corporate lapel pins taking up residence in the university for the mainstream industry’s conference, and those favouring Gore-tex cagoules occupying the city’s town hall for a more environmentally focused rival event. A new membership organisation called the Nature Friendly Farming Network has even been formed to champion sustainable thinking.
“You can’t really separate it,” was Batters’s official position on the divide when we met on the sidelines of the main conference, at which delegates were offered morsels of roast pork or vegetable tagine in porcelain bowls. “We have to be able to produce our food in a truly sustainable way, that is decreasing its footprint but producing the same amount or more.” Yet while her elegant outfit (a plaid skirt matched with a smart pink scarf) spoke to one side of modern British farming’s identity, her persistent cough belied another: an industry exhausted by external pressures and racked by internal contradictions.
Even as Batters has become one of the English countryside’s most polished advocates, her position leading a union that includes vast business interests (from mega-dairies to intensive poultry producers) means that her support for green reform often appears hamstrung by commercial pressures. Her response to the recent green subsidy reforms is a case in point, emphasising the need to prioritise the security of farmers’ livelihoods. “This has got to be seen as a businesses decision: the environment can be a crop, but it’s got to be profitable, otherwise farmers are going to be losing money. Regardless of whether it’s the right thing, they’re just not going to be able to do it.”
A particularly telling point of divergence between green interests and farming ones is over meat. Earlier this year the Green Alliance think tank set out a land-use scenario that would turn over a third of current farmland to “semi-natural habitat” as well as increasing farm incomes and reducing the UK’s dependence on imported produce – but only if meat and dairy consumption were reduced by 45 per cent. This dietary change is in line with the UN’s scientific advice on reaching global climate targets, but it is not something the government or the NFU are yet willing to countenance.
Batters’s defence of British livestock farmers is strident. The subsidy reforms, she noted, while an improvement for arable farmers, will offer livestock farmers less than they currently receive. This matters, she argued, since Britain produces some of the world’s most “low-carbon and high-welfare” animals and the nation should be exporting its meat to help foreign consumers to meet the demands of net-zero targets (an argument similar to that used to defend the UK’s continued production of fossil fuels).
She is also adamant that farming policy should not tell people what they should eat. “The principle here for us is: do not link consumption with production. So if you look at the world plate, none of us, no matter what age, we aren’t eating enough fruit and vegetables and pulses. But that said, when we have a climate whereby we have rainfall, we grow grass, we have predominantly extensive grazed beef, dairy herds and sheep flock, that [are] all outside, we should be enormously proud of that. And we shouldn’t disadvantage other people in other parts of the world who don’t have that climate; they should be able to buy high quality, affordable British meat and dairy products.”
According to revelations by openDemocracy, the NFU has also recently lobbied to weaken environmental targets, on things such as the creation of woodland and the improvement of river water, due to their impact on food security and land values. For the Soil Association, a charity that advocates for an agro-ecological shift, greater planting of trees on farms would be “game-changing”, but the government’s subsidy plans avoid these more transformational reforms.
“I still think the focus on food production isn’t where it needs to be,” Batters said, citing Rishi Sunak’s failure to meet a promise he made during the Conservative leadership contest to introduce legal targets for self-sufficiency. “I don’t see significant changes to make sure that food production does not become the poor relation to the environment, to green energy. We’ve got a finite amount of land that we’ve really got to balance carefully. We’ve got to deliver for the environment and food in equal measure.”