East farmers urge Gove to engage in straight talking as agricultural revolution looms
- Credit: Archant
East Anglian farmers have urged environment secretary Michael Gove to put his money where his mouth is after he laid out his vision for UK agriculture at Oxford Farming Conference 2019.
Mr Gove’s speech on Thursday (January 3), in which he heralded a Fourth Agricultural Revolution with the UK in the vanguard, and warned against a ‘no deal’ Brexit, provoked mixed reactions from the region’s farmers, some of whom wanted to see more concrete solutions to the challenges they faced, more certainty - and some straight-talking.
The minister insisted leaving the EU would rejuvenate the UK’s democracy, make power more accountable and see the country escape from the “bureaucratic straitjacket” of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
MORE - Cheap food comes at a cost, warns East Anglian farmers’ leader“Reform is vital to modernise the sector and capitalise on technological advances. In 2016/17, more than half of the UK’s farms earned less than £20,000 and a fifth made no profit at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, a no-deal Brexit meant overall tariff rates of around 11% on agricultural products, with some sectors much more severely affected, he warned.
“It’s a grim but inescapable fact that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the effective tariffs on beef and sheep meat would be above 40% - in some cases well above that,” he said.
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His department was ‘relentlessly focused’ on streamlining the bureaucracy inherited under the CAP to ensure farmers can concentrate on their core business of ‘sustainable food production and enhancement of our natural capital’ as it implements his environment-focused ‘public money for public goods’ plan, he said.
He also announced that food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby would lead the development of a new Food Strategy.
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Andrew Blenkiron, Euston Estate director, said other than the announcement about Henry Dimbleby’s role there was little new in the speech, which had “plenty of aspirational vison but an incredible lack of detail in the potential delivery, with a big hole in how we are going to deliver cheaper food with higher standards, whilst still ensuring that our markets aren’t flooded by cheap imports”.
“Personally I prefer straight talking with solutions to issues, I still find a lot of his words mildly insulting to farmers who have worked incredibly hard to deliver precisely what politicians have asked us to do over very many years,” he said.
“Farmers spend a lifetime with similar visions to Mr Gove. What we need now is the time and investment to deliver the Fourth Agricultural Revolution.”
But vertical farming, use of artificial intelligence, Big Data, robotics, gene editing and new protein sources would not happen “until a fair price is paid for the food that we consume”, he warned.
Richard Anscombe, chief executive of farming co-operative Fram Farmers, said a fundamental challenge to UK farming was education. “Many of our existing farmers will read this list and think, yes, I can see this, but it won’t be me, and therein lies a problem for them and their family businesses. If the business is not educated in these factors and possessing the skills and knowledge to cope and change, then many will be left behind. We have a skills gap between what is required and the appetite and toolset that many farmers possess,” he said.
He also called for significant investment in marketing home-grown food, with a push to persuade consumers to ‘Buy British’.
Big changes in farming approaches took structural change, investment and planning, and posed a risk to short term profitability, he pointed out. “A stable government policy would give some solidity to farmers juggling all of the key factors for sustainable successful business.”
Suffolk National Farmers’ Union (NFU) chair Glenn Buckingham said Mr Gove now needed to come up with the substance of the new Agriculture Bill, as he welcomed his Health and Harmony report consultation, and his acknowledgement that farming was a long-term industry.
“It does mean collaboration in every sense, not just farmer to farmer, to cope with the pressures of an increasingly globalised competitive market, but all the way through the food chain,” he said.
“We need to re-engage with our customers who have become disconnected. Encouragement for relocalisation of the food system could help with this.
“Standards must be maintained, the farming industry does understand this and we wish to be trusted through well thought out regulation and assurance schemes. Technology must be embraced to make this efficient from farm to fork. Food production will increasingly face more pressures to be resilient, more sustainable and resource efficient whilst coping with climate change and the need to provide wholesome food.”
An East Anglian livestock auctioneer underlined the importance of access to European markets as he reacted to Michael Gove’s Oxford Farming Conference speech this week.
Graham Ellis, of Stanfords’ Colchester Livestock Market, said his businesss was regularly in discussion with farming clients about ‘no deal’ Brexit uncertainty.
“The large number of store sheep currently being fed on roots in the area have been purchased on the hope of continuing trade with Europe without hindrance,” he said. “Any hindrance in April 2019 onward will lively to have a severe effect on sheep prices and thereby farmers’ returns.”
A high number of lamb and ewe carcases were exported to Europe, he said. and the trade was needed to ensure a realistic return. The beef trade was also reliant on exports. “Many if not the majority of farmers and livestock producers voted for a clean Brexit and when in discussions with them now they still believe that the future is good with free trade and open markets.”
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters called on the government to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit and ensure the Agriculture Bill is fit for purpose, with food production at its heart, as she addressed Oxford Farming Conference delegates.
Britain could face huge disruption as a result of being prevented from exporting agricultural products to the EU, she warned, with the lamb sector particularly hard hit.
“There have been enough warm words and comfort to us as farmers but now is time for decisions from the government about how it will secure the nation’s food supply. We are less than 90 days away from Brexit and there is still enormous uncertainty about the future and how domestic food production fits into that,” she said. “Food is one of the fundamentals of life. Its importance cannot be understated. A government that fails to deliver a Brexit that gets this right will fail us all.”