Crop protection tools ‘must be safeguarded’

Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union will address the Suffolk Annual Co

Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union will address the Suffolk Annual County Meeting of the NFU. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Farmers must fight to safeguard vital crop protection tools and communicate better with consumers to make their case amid an increasingly-vociferous green lobby, the new deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) argued on a visit to East Anglia this week.

Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union addresses the Suffolk Annual Count

Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union addresses the Suffolk Annual County Meeting of the NFU. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Minette Batters, pictured inset, who has a 300-strong beef herd in Wiltshire and has worked with retailers to develop the Ladies in Beef and Great British Beef Week initiatives, said the NFU’s strategic vision for UK farming includes the removal of “burdensome regulation” while seeking assurances that available science will be applied in the field for the best benefit of all.

And a key issue will be how to prevent crop protection chemicals being banned by European Union (EU) policy-makers, and how to counter a growing environmental lobby – particularly following a ban on neonicotinoid seed dressings.

On pesticides:

“In 2001 we had 850 ‘actives’ in the crop protection toolbox, but we only have half that now. Making sure the science in the lab gets to the fields is very important and we have got this green challenge now which is changing the focus of our lobbying.

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“On the neonicotinoid debate, I asked Oliver Letwin (the minister for government policy): ‘How did we go from a ‘green light’ situation to a ‘red light’? He said it was the 1.5m emails sent to the prime minister, so the prime minister was not interested in the evidence base. He was interested in the numbers. It was the result of a co-ordinated attack, and that sums up the challenge we face going forward.

“We need to use our on-side NGOs (non-governmental organisations) like LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and GWCT (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust). We need to work with them and with all the science institutes to get what is happening into the press, because they are very interested in food, so we need to engage with that.

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“There is a great deal of misconception and a complete lack of understanding of our farmers. These are challenging times, but we have got to stick with the positive and sell this great industry to the public.”

On communication and PR:

“Farmers are not brilliant at communicating. If we want to hang on to all these ‘actives’ we have got to show that we have a vibrant biodiversity alongside it. If we can get more farmers out there championing their products it would help.

“People talk about ‘making space for nature’ but my father was involved in topping grassland for set-aside in the 1980s and it became nothing more than a prairie. Nothing was living there.

“So you cannot just make space for nature. Those pollinator strips don’t just appear. They need to be maintained and re-planted, and so we need to explain there is a value to that. And we have got to be innovative about how we do it. Social media has been a game-changer and politicians are facing a really united force with those green NGOs working together to influence policy.”

On GM (genetically-modified) foods:

“I worry that throughout Europe we are getting left behind. Investment in these sciences will go to the States if we’re not careful. In this country, we have always been at the forefront and I hope we will stay there. The new EU agriculture commissioner (Phil Hogan) gives us hope of a more pro-active view on GM. If we are going to care for the environment and if we are going to produce more from less, then GM is the future.

“I would be looking to this part of the world to be the innovation hub. We have all the science institutes here in East Anglia and it would be madness not to be working with them.”

On bovine tuberculosis (TB):

“We now have a 25-year plan to eradicate bovine TB which we have never had before. It is a fresh approach and it is about using every tool, so that means tighter control measures, vaccinating badgers (which carry the disease) in the “edge” area between high and low-risk areas to create a firewall, and taking out the endemic disease in the high-risk area.

“Eradication is about working with the farmers, the science and the diagnostics. Farmers in this part of the world want to know that people bringing in cattle are doing it responsibly.

“All cattle coming from a high-risk areas would have to be tested before they come out, but the new measures would include post-movement testing and quarantines – that is starting to come in, and it is part of the new rules.

“If we don’t beat this disease, it will be the end of livestock production as we know it in this country. So we have to get it right.”

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