'We rely on you to feed the nation': Farming Minister speaks ahead of conference
Thu 01 Feb 2024
Norfolk...you are very much one of the counties we rely on to feed the nation."
The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries.
The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, who is addressing the Norfolk Farming Conference on 6th February, gave us an exclusive interview ahead of the event to discuss various topics affecting the industry.
How can UK farmers keep using land to produce food when government policy and retailers’ objectives are to import/source food on a low-cost basis? Will you change the current system which penalises UK farmers in that they have to compete with imports from the EU and trade deals with other countries where farmers do not have to uphold the same standards as they do?
“I don’t accept the premise that we can’t compete, I genuinely think we have some of the smartest farmers in the world who can compete at global levels. I also think the quality of our food also allows us to compete in that marketplace, the providence of that food production system, the freshness and location of that food also helps us to compete in those circumstances.
“Trade deals are a two-way street, they allow us to export as well…we have to get smarter with trade deals and use them to our advantage. Many opportunities for UK food producers.”
But aren’t UK farmers being encouraged to use their land for almost anything other than producing food; given the food security crisis, don’t we need to get our farmers back to the basics of producing food?
“Yes, I do accept it’s a challenge, globally we have a huge challenge, we have an increasing population we need to feed and do that at the same time as protecting the environment and reversing biodiversity loss globally so those three things are a huge challenge to us as a global organisation of farmers to keep everyone well fed.
“The good news is that we actually get about 1% more efficient each year, we have demonstrated that over the last four or five decades, we need to continue with that productivity gain and continue to increase our ability to produce more from less to allow us to use other blocks of land for other things; wind turbines, small scale solar, biodiversity gain, we need to do that alongside food production.
“So, food production needs to be economically viable to those farmers, we want to help and support those farmers embrace new techniques and new technology, invest in new machinery which will increase their productivity on the bits of productive land we want to focus on and on some of the peripheries, we want them to be able to use for the environment and the biodiversity.
“I don’t diminish the scale of the challenge we face but the government wants to help on that journey.
“For counties like Norfolk where there are very productive blocks of land, we will need farmers to be able to make a living by producing straight food for that marketplace, you are very much one of the counties we rely on to feed the nation.
“There are other parts of the country where farmers may want to do more of that environmental stuff where it’s less productive, but I do want to give Norfolk farmers the opportunity to also engage in trying to use, say an integrated pest management scheme that allows them to spend less on pesticides if they can achieve the same productivity with attracting pests away from the crop.
“There are huge grants available for productivity, for investment in machinery, new technology, to try and help and support those farmers either build their own productivity by using that machinery or by working with their rotations to embrace some of that new SFI grant that is available.
“We have done our best to design a scheme that works on the top of Snowdon as well as on the Lincolnshire Fens which isn’t easy, which is why I want to create as large a menu as possible to allow farmers to choose from that menu what works best on their farm and works best on their farming system.
“We’ve passed the Genetic Technology Bill which, now we are outside the EU, allows our universities, our great research institutes like the John Innes to really embrace the new technology that is available to us, we can really bounce forward with that genetic gain and it’s something which is receiving quite a lot of traction in the EU, they can see UK farmers having access to better tech and better breeding than they will have in the EU.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us, we need to compete with not only our friends in Europe but also large-scale agriculture in South and North America. In those circumstances, the PM has been clear we won’t allow, for example hormone treated beef to be imported or chlorinated chicken so we have been able to protect farmers from that and we will continue to do so.
“Where there is legitimate criticism is particularly around using neonicotinoids in oil seed rape production in the Ukraine, and we need to do better as a sector in ensuring our consumers understand that, that if you are buying rapeseed oil from the Ukraine, it will have been grown using neonicotinoids which is banned here in the UK.
“Unfortunately, under international law we can’t stop that from happening but it’s something we are very much aware of but informing our consumers about the brilliant systems we use in the UK, the higher welfare, the higher standards and methods of production is a good way to make sure we receive the premium we are due.”
Ag inflation is rising rapidly so can you assure UK farmers that they will receive all the allocated government budget?
“Yes, £2.4bn a year; we have been clear we are going to ringfence that. I hope we can do better than that because we have underspent a couple of years ago so we are trying to roll that forward and get money out of the door as quickly as possible.
“That’s why you have seen a number of grant schemes, for people who want to invest in slurry systems, or to invest in calf or beef housing or new tech like direct drills, we will continue to do more of that so they can invest in robotics and new tech while also make sure we continue to fund countryside stewardship as well as SFI, that cash is ringfenced and there for UK farmers to embrace and to use.”
Bluetongue is a problem with outbreaks in the UK including in Norfolk; can you assure our farmers that Defra is taking all the precautions it can to ensure this doesn’t worsen?
“I am quite worried about it, we are meeting with APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency) officials on a regular basis to assess where we are at and try and scope out the impact of what may happen going forwards.
“I think the best thing that could happen is a really cold snap of some hard frost to kill all the midges which are here and also in Northern Europe as it has been really bad there. At the moment, there isn’t a credible vaccine. We are working hard with the sector to find that vaccine and develop it as soon as possible and then as a sector we will have to work out where and how we will deploy that vaccine to try and protect farms; particularly on the southeast coast from Sussex right round to Norfolk and Suffolk.
“It is a worrying time but we are doing a lot behind the scenes to try and prepare for that, we will continue to work with the sector to try and protect as many farmers as possible from the effects of blue tongue.
Will farmers continue to receive compensation?
“We are compensating for culling because there are very few examples of it but if the disease becomes endemic within the population, some of the animals will survive, they will become immune.
“We don’t want to cull animals in those circumstances, the best thing we could do is look to vaccination; if a credible vaccine comes forward and it is affordable but we are still developing those plans and working with the APHA vets and the latest science and latest advice.”
The horticulture industry is in crisis with farmers struggling to obtain overseas labour – will the government intervene?
“We commissioned the John Shropshire review, he has done a full report which the government is assessing and we are going to respond to very soon. We do have regular conversations with our friends in the Home Office who control the visa system, we recognise it’s very difficult at this moment in time to produce fresh vegetables and meet other challenges in the horticulture sector without that external labour.
“We want to help and support them through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme to get access to that labour source and at the same time, if there is technology we can invest in to reduce that necessity for that labour; then we should be doing that; robotics and camera systems to grade carrots and onions, for example. Harvesting soft fruit is a lot more tricky but there is a lot of work going on at Lincoln University I have seen first-hand where they are investing in technology where they can harvest strawberries, help with the control of mildew in strawberries by using robotics.
“At the moment that technology is not quite commercially there but we want to keep putting the cash in to help and support that technology come to the marketplace as soon as possible.“
The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries is the headline speaker at the Norfolk Farming Conference, organised by the RNAA, Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and co-sponsored by our firm.
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