National Farmers' Union President fears for the future of British Family Farming

Matthew Waters
Agriculture, News
Image of a cow

On Saturday 10 October, Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), published a piece in the Daily Mail that she professed she "never wanted to have to write", fearing the death of the British family farm.

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Her fears centre around the choice to either continue with the UK's record of producing competitively priced food to the highest environmental and welfare standards, or become embroiled in a "race to the bottom" to compete with vast, global factory farming which would lead to the death of the British family farm as we know it.

The new Agriculture Bill will shape future UK trade deals on food and has become subject to a number of proposed amendments which those who have tabled them claim will enshrine in law vital safeguards to protect UK farmers against mass imports of sub-standard food in any post-Brexit trade deals. These proposed amendments follow a NFU petition earlier in the year demanding that, after Brexit, all food imports must meet the same environmental and animal welfare standards that apply to British farmers.

The amendments were voted down in the House of Commons on Monday 12 October, with Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustace being one of those who voted against the amendments.

“We already have the legal powers to protect our food standards and animal welfare, so the amendment tabled was not necessary,” Mr Eustace explained, in support of the existing Agricultural Bill. “As Farming Minister, I ensured that our manifesto had a clear commitment to protect and uphold animal welfare standards in future trade deals and to ensure that our farmers are not undermined by unfair competition.

“The government will deliver this through a combination of measures including a prohibition on the sale of meats treated with hormones or chlorine, a chapter in any future trade deal that sets out the requirements for foreign countries as far as food safety is concerned, and the use of tariff policy to prevent producers with low animal welfare standards having unfair access to our market.”

Imports of intensively reared chlorinated chicken from sprawling American factory farms where space and light are not considerations have certainly grabbed the headlines over recent months. However, despite government assurances, many fear that it won't just be the UK's poultry farmers who could find their market saturated with sub-standard imports if those assurances aren’t met.

British rapeseed growers, restricted in the chemicals they can apply to protect their crop from pests, could find themselves competing with rapeseed oil grown in ways banned in Europe. British beef, reared to higher welfare standards, would have to compete on the shelves with that from hormone treated cattle, whose accelerated growth times and lack of veterinary supervision lower their cost.

Mrs Batters' article suggested an alternative name by which the Agriculture Bill should be considered; the 'What your children will eat (and will be eating for the rest of their lives) Bill'.

Despite the grave concerns addressed above, Mrs Batters also presented an optimistic picture of what post-Brexit free trade agreements could bring; introducing the world outside of the EU to our delicious free-range pork, artisan sheep and goats cheeses, British beef and lamb, all washed down with award-winning wines.

In order to achieve this, the NFU is calling for a new Trade and Agriculture Commission comprising of industry experts to provide objective parliamentary insight into future trade deals.

While there is a percentage of the British population who will make the conscious decision to ‘Buy British’ to ensure they are consuming products grown or reared to a higher standard, a huge proportion of food is consumed ‘blind’ in restaurants, takeaways, ready-made sandwiches and ready meals where price will champion over provenance.

With the support of their petition, backed by a million signatures, and a growing percentage of the British public looking to see earlier ministerial promises on food standards kept, Mrs Batters and the NFU will be watching keenly when the Bill returns to the House of Lords on Tuesday 20th October. 

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