After the Club’s Annual General Meeting, where Wiltshire farmer Richard Butler was elected Club chairman and south-west Wales dairy farmer Tim Bennett vice-chairman for 2016, NFU Deputy President Minette Batters gave a forthright view of what needed to be done to refocus Government.
She called for a united industry, across sectors and across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to grasp a once in a lifetime opportunity ahead of the EU in/out referendum, which is widely expected to be in 2016, to convince the Government that farming is key to the nation’s health and economic well-being.
“We are talking too much about farming and what farmers want, when we need to talk more about the wider debates that are relevant to the public,” she said. Health, the growing diabetes epidemic, global climate change, water scarcity were all topics farming could, and should be contributing to, to show its relevance to society, she insisted.
“We need a government bold enough to take food seriously,” she said. But it would not do so of its own volition. Industry needed to set the agenda and the imminent EU referendum was a prime time to do that. “I think the public are there, but we’re not tapping into it and the referendum offers us the chance to do so.”
She slammed the role of non-governmental organisations, which seemed to win the government’s ear too often, making her role sometimes “extremely infuriating.” “Too often it is a numbers game, no matter how much politicians tell you it is not.”
NGOs attending London Mayor Boris Johnson’s Food Board forums highlighted the problem, repeatedly calling for the countryside to be allowed to return to its ‘natural state’ and to ‘make space for nature’.
“We all know derelict land has no significant biodiversity or environmental value, it has to be managed for wildlife benefits, as a visit to your 2016 chairman, Richard Butler, highlighted to me recently. Agri-environmental areas bring tremendous benefits.”
NGO conversations showed where the NFU should go, she said. The benefits of CAP needed spelling out, and connecting with the everyday lives of the public, as well as the new breed of food policy influencers. The industry needed to create new alliances to explain this. “There is a total misunderstanding [amongst the public] about what farmers do.”
With a majority government the industry had a colossal expectation that issues like bovine TB, neonicotinoid insecticides and the wide chemical toolbox would be resolved. But that was completely unrealistic, she said.
UK austerity was going to be ‘dire’. “Taking £83m out of Defra will like cutting its arms and legs off.” No wonder Defra Secretary Liz Truss looked so downbeat at Norfolk Show. “We have been lucky with Secretaries of State who have understood our industry, but we now have a government that is very happy to out-source to the global supply chain.”
The UK’s stand at the hugely influential World Expo exhibition in Milan, which is focused on feeding the world, highlighted the problem. Put together by an NGO (at a cost of £6m), it focused on bees, with a brilliantly conceived beehive concept the size of a two-storey house, but utterly failed to explain the role of pollinators in crop production, or even show honey as an output. “I felt completely lost – it was quite a stark moment,” Mrs Batters noted.
“We are part of the 3% feeding the global 97%, and that is a pretty profound statistic. And if we are going to deal with issues like climate change and water resources we have to get government to engage with agriculture. It can’t be left to focus on urban society and ignore farming.
“We in farming need to talk to the public like they are in the USA, where they are using social scientists to put farming’s roles into consumer language.”
“The industry needs the NFU more than it has ever needed it,” she concluded.
- Minette, the first female office-holder in the NFU’s 105 year history, grew up living and working on a farm, but with no succession tenancy available she had to wait until 1998 to secure a long-term Farm Business Tenancy. She has built her Barford Park farm business to over 300 head of stock, finishing Angus cattle on a premium scheme for a major retailer, as well as diversifying into horse livery, a converted 17th century tithe barn wedding and corporate events venue, and a catering operation specialising in home grown produce. Minette also worked with industry and retailers to develop ‘Ladies in Beef’ and the ‘Great British Beef Week’. Her NFU involvement grew from grassroots to County Chairman in Wiltshire and Regional Board Chairman for the South West. She has been a member of the NFU’s Governance Board and the agricultural representative on the SW Environment Agency Flood and Coastal Committee.