Prime Minister “needs to map a realistic future for farmers”

At this week’s National Farmers Union Conference, the government underlined its support for profitable farming businesses. The Prime Minister said that he wanted to improve food security and protect the British agriculture sector for generations to come.

However, organic and agroecological farmers responded, saying that Rishi Sunak needed to map a realistic future for farmers, back nature-friendly food production, and stop seeking silver bullets.

Speaking at the NFU Conference in Birmingham (20th February), the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary announced a range of measures to boost productivity and resilience in the sector, including a grant offer for farmers in the coming financial year, expected to total £427 million.

This included doubling investment in productivity schemes, bolstering schemes such as the Improving Farming Productivity grant which provides support for farmers to invest in automation and robotics, as well as solar installations to build on-farm energy security.

The Prime Minister also announced a new annual UK-wide Food Security Index to capture and present the data needed to monitor levels of food security, that the Farm to Fork Summit will be held annually, and a £15 million fund to help tackle food waste by enabling farmers to redistribute surplus food that cannot be used commercially at the farm gate.

Sunak said that new regulations would be laid in Parliament this week to ensure fair and transparent contracts for dairy farmers. This would mean clearer pricing terms for farmers, that changes to contracts can’t be imposed without farmer agreement, as well as the provision of more straightforward ways for farmers to raise concerns about their contracts. Alongside this, a review is also set to launch to improve fairness in the poultry supply chain.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said, “For generations, farmers have worked day in, day out to put food on our tables and are custodians of our beautiful British countryside. This is why we committed £2.4 billion to support British farming and have invested into the sector to boost agricultural productivity and resilience, increase food security and deliver for the environment, delivering on our plan.

“This includes the largest ever package of competitions and grants to foster technology and innovation, bolstered by our increasingly popular farming schemes that support all types and size of farm businesses to produce food sustainably.”

However, the Soil Association said that the Prime Minister needed to stop seeking silver bullets and instead back nature-friendly farming.

Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said, “Cash boosts for our farmers who are facing so much uncertainty are welcome but today’s announcement smacks of a search for silver bullet solutions instead of mapping out a more realistic future. Instead of hoping for the price of fossil-fuel derived fertilisers to come down, government should be investing in research, advice and support for farmers to move away from dependence on damaging and expensive inputs.

“There is a role for new tech and setting land aside for habitats, but this won’t be enough on its own. Nature-friendly food production must be prioritised to deliver transformative change across the farmland that makes up 70% of the UK. For true food security, government must bolster the Sustainable Farming Incentives with a bold vision for resilient farming, following the lead set by organic and agroecological farmers who are using truly sustainable and regenerative approaches.

“Other countries across the rest of Europe have targets to boost organic farming, recognising the benefits already being delivered. Without targets to deliver this type of clear vision, farmers will be ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change while imports meet the growing demand for sustainable and organic food.

“However none of this can be achieved without fair supply chains that incentivise climate and nature friendly production, so we are delighted to see government taking a more active role to ensure farmers get a fair deal. We hope to next see that logic applied to securing trade deals that don’t undercut British farmers.”

Meanwhile, the Nature Friendly Farming Network called for the introduction of a land use framework to help guide decision-making around land use, for the government to publish robust evidence on how the agricultural transition will meet the targets in the Environmental Improvement Plan, and for outline plans to upscale environmental and farm business advice.

Martin Lines, CEO of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said, “The nation’s food security is dependent on a thriving natural environment, with healthy soils, clean water and an abundance of biodiversity all essential components for food production. Securing genuine food security depends on farmers being given the necessary support to invest in a transition to nature-friendly farming systems while navigating the immense uncertainties of farming in a changing climate.

“While today’s announcement provides a lot of welcome actions, it fails to provide the necessary long-term strategy to harness nature’s vital role in strengthening the nation’s food security.”


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