UK ‘needs successful and profitable farmers to help environment post-Brexit’, Suffolk farmers told
Suffolk farmers must help shape a post-Brexit farming and environmental policy which will enable them to grow food, protect wildlife and safeguard animal welfare, they were told this week.
As frustration mounts around the rate of progress at the Brexit talks in Brussels, farmers, conservationists, students and local representatives gathered to discuss the future at a timely conference at Trinity Park, Ipswich, on Wednesday, November 15.
A series of local and national speakers, including National Farmers’ Union deputy president Minette Batters, Suffolk Agricultural Association (SAA) president-elect Baroness Hazel Byford and Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) biodiversity adviser Peter Thompson, gave their views on the county’s potential farming and environment landscape in a post-Brexit world.
Organisers the SAA and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) said they had decided to join forces to look at how future farm policy can deliver for consumers, farmers and the environment by staging the event, and hope that they have stimulated a debate locally on how to safeguard a key industry within the county while bolstering measures to help its wildlife.
Commercial farmers AJ Paul of Broxtead Estate, Sutton, near Woodbridge, and Patrick Barker of Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, showed how it was possible to combine commercial farming interests with good environmental practices, and how they were going the extra mile to encourage others to do the same.
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But delegates heard that the newest farm conservation scheme, Countryside Stewardship, a competition-based successor to Environmental Stewardship, wasn’t working well, with uptake not where it should be, and too many perceived obstacles.
The need for future support was stressed, as was the effectiveness of joined-up farmer-led conservation approaches in achieving some very good results for wildlife and the environment within commercial farm settings.
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Baroness Byford said “successful and profitable” farmers were essential if the countryside is to enjoy a bright future, and stressed the food and farming industry’s importance to the economy, as it employed 3.8m people and was worth £100bn, with £20bn in export sales. Half of farmers had diversified, providing a boost to tourism and other industries in rural economies, she added.
The global picture was stark, with populations on the rise, a lack of sufficient water, 1m people starving, and a further 3m obese, she said.
Against this backdrop, many in the UK were passionate about nature, but some conservation charities were working within “a very narrow framework”. “I believe a divide has come between us,” she said.
There was a difficulty in establishing reliable data on what was happening in the countryside environment, she added, but suggested Brexit would present “a blank sheet of paper” which would enable new policies and frameworks to be formed. However, the public was still awaiting the government’s 25 year food strategy and environmental reports.
“I believe we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at the legislation that has been developed over the years to see if they have achieved what they set out to do,” she said, adding: “We must ensure that the health and welfare of plants and livestock in this country is protected.”
But farmers of the future must be more out-facing, she advised.
“One criticism I have is that as an industry we are very good at talking to each other, but we are not very good at talking within a wider domain.”
Mrs Batters pointed out the importance of Brexit talks in shaping the future of the industry, as the EU contained 500m predominantly wealthy consumers on our doorstep. Food and farming “must be” part of the trade negotiations, and the farming sector must “speak with one voice”.
“I can absolutely promise you that the trade deals will shape our landscape more than any other policy we come up with today,” she warned. “Food policy has slipped off the political agenda. I would say as we stand here today that it has fallen off a cliff edge.”