NFU Conference 2023: farming experts and politicians tackle 5 key talking points
The NFU Conference 2023 descended on Birmingham this week, with some of the biggest names in farming and in politics gathering to discuss and debate the pressing issues facing the industry. Here is how five of the hot topics up for discussion unfolded during the event.
Food security is high on the global agenda, but this week the issue was splashed all over the UK front pages with aghast headlines bemoaning the lack of some fresh fruit and vegetables on supermarket shelves. Several supermarkets started limiting sales of items like tomatoes to customers, e.g. a maximum of three packs per customer at Tesco, which bought this global issue into sharp domestic focus just in time for the NFU conference.
A spell of freak weather in Spain and Morocco was perhaps the biggest reason for the current shortage, but there are other much-discussed volatile issues that contributed, and generate concerns around future UK food security. And the widespread impact of this latest supply chain interruption, however short-term it might prove to be, highlighted the UK’s reliance on fresh imports and exposed the fragility of its current supply chain.
Food security expert, Professor Tim Benton told the NFU conference the UK “needs to do better, we need to transform our food system and make it more resilient and less likely to fall apart. We don’t live in a calm and stable world, we live in a volatile one.”
In order for such transformative action to take place, he implored the Government to step up. “We talk all the time about innovation, the technology silver bullet, but we need institutional innovation, and we need governance innovation. We need the Government to stand up and create a long-term vision for change that will deliver what you need as farmers, and [give UK consumers] access to a healthy diet in a way that they can afford. We need the government to lead on that.”
Challenged by NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw that such a “utopian vision would require seismic change across the entire food system on a global scale”, Benton agreed his case was “pie in the sky” and “ideological”. But he warned that “if we carry on with the status quo, that way lies utter disaster. And that is the course we are on for the end of the century. So we need to get real and understand this is an existential threat we have to tackle.”
NFU President Minette Batters also spoke about food security and the role the Government has to play, saying the “rhetoric from successive governments that we are a wealthy country, so we can just import our food, must be exposed as naive in the extreme.”
Is the UK Government naive? Rishi Sunak’s decision to avoid the NFU conference and send a video message instead may prove to be an error come General Election time, with around half a million people directly employed by the agriculture industry. Featuring big smiles, lots of ‘thank yous’, and short on substance, he resembled someone winning an award who hadn’t been able to make the ceremony. Batters described it through gently gritted teeth as “a lovely feel-good video“. Anyone from the UK farming community looking for reassurance or a dynamic commitment from the PM was left wanting more.
The Conservatives did send along DEFRA Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey, though afterwards they may have wished Coffey had sent a quick video instead. Coffey’s speech parroted much of what DEFRA Minister Mark Spencer had already said more persuasively the day before, and on occasion her attitude veered between patronising and nonplussed.
It wasn’t a total car crash, she even drew some applause when she said she wouldn’t be restoring wolves or the lynx to UK wildlife. But the Q&A featured several awkward moments, such as Coffey glossing over any suggestion that the beleaguered egg industry producing a billion fewer eggs than it had in 2019 suggested the market was failing. At one point she started directing questions from the floor herself, and made a dig about the NFU conference running 10 minutes behind schedule, which drew jeers.
She was also vague about the efficacy of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and what to do about it. Given the role was created in 2013, and with suggestions some producers are still being paid below the cost of production peppering the conference, the GCA has clearly not eradicated the issues it was established to address. None of this endeared her to the crowd and generated a derisory reaction on Twitter and a roasting in the newspapers the next day.
All this was exacerbated by Keir Starmer, who appeared in person and spoke and took questions for 35 minutes. His impassioned rhetoric could have been interpreted as a naked appeal for votes at the next election, but he did sound engaged and determined, which stood in stark contrast to Coffey’s indifference.
Promising to stop the “always a sticking plaster, never a cure” politics which has seen UK farming “lurch from crisis to crisis”, Starmer said the “lack of urgency, detail and long-term planning is not on”. He also broadened his speech out from farming, sympathising with concerns shared by the rural community over policing and the NHS. Taking transformational action is not the same as sounding like you mean it, but many NFU conference attendees would have been left with the impression that Labour understands the pressure farming is under, and cares more about the industry than the current Government does.
Stepping away from politics, the environmental impact of farming is a holistic challenge that becomes more critical every year. The farming industry is striving to become increasingly eco-friendly, though many would be quick to acknowledge there is a long way to go, and in the meantime the pressure keeps building.
Marion Regan, a fifth generation berry farmer, said: “We grow about 6,000 tonnes of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries and we have always had to be super-resilient. Weather events, market movements, [seasonal] labour and a highly perishable crop all combine to send us curve balls all the time. But in all my time farming, this is the clearest existential crisis we are now facing and it’s in three parts. One is climate change crisis, the second is a loss of biodiversity, and the third is soaring inflation and reduced margins.”
Increased input costs were a running theme throughout the conference, from the speakers to the floor, as well as the importance of improving how the Government financially incentivises farmers to accelerate further eco-progress.
NFU President Batters said as things stand, “positive environmental action by farmers” is not being rewarded. She called for “further development of new Government schemes, for instance ELMs in England, and the Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales, and secondly through the development of new environmental markets”.
Though work continues on both ELM and SFI, more immediate financial backing (and clarity) is needed to make expensive investment decisions, said farmers. Comments from the floor were firmly grounded in the reality of farming life. “Trust us, we want to do it, but support us to do so,” said one. “These are long term commitments, and they take a lot of investment. We need to be rewarded or financially incentivised, but we aren’t.” Another speaker from the floor, also calling for early financing to safeguard commitment by farmers, finished up by saying: “I applaud the early adopters. They can make mistakes, so I don’t have to.”
Farmers have frequently been called upon to demonstrate their resilience in recent decades, but 2023 is shaping up to be one of the sternest tests yet. At the conference the NFU announced a number of sector-specific resilience plans relating to crops, dairy, livestock, horticulture, sugar and poultry, saying: “For the first time, these resilience plans bring together what could be achieved, based on what we are asking the Government to do for farmers and growers.”
The industry will need it, in the face of what the NFU says is a “world population that’s expecting to exceed 10 billion people and needs 50-60% more calories,” just at the same time as “climate change and the need to hit global temperature targets is all the more pressing.”
Ash Amirahmadi, Managing Director of Arla Foods UK, stated that “we are at a defining moment” and described the situation as a “massive societal challenge”. He pointed to the importance of considering sustainability and climate change when making purchasing decisions, and realising the commercial benefits to adopting a sustainable approach, like investing in renewable energy.
Assad Malic, Head of Comms and Sustainability at Greene King, told the conference that collaboration between suppliers and manufacturers and retailers was key to long term success. “We can’t reach our goals without you, the farmers,” he said. “And you can’t make the transition without the security of customers like us.”
The NFU President
Conference Q&As are often hosted by people who blithely nod along with whatever their guests are saying. So it was refreshing to watch NFU President Minette Batters be bold and robust in her questioning on behalf of her members, particularly in response to some of the more risible answers from political figures.
“We need action not words”, was her mantra throughout. Combined with a polite but determined refusal to let nonsense slide during the Q&As, Batters opened the conference by detailing the collection of challenges faced by the farming industry, such as climate change, rising prices across the board, labour shortages and the war in Ukraine, all of which meant that “volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses in England and Wales today.”
She dropped some hard numbers, saying UK egg production has fallen to its lowest level in nine years, with a billion fewer eggs produced in 2022 compared to 2019. Production of vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers are expected to fall to the lowest levels since records began in 1985, whilst 40% of beef farmers and 36% of sheep farmers are planning to reduce numbers in the next 12 months, with input costs being the main reason.
She also expressed concerns around the Government’s ability to back up its apparent intentions with action. “Time is almost up for this Government to start walking the talk,” she said. “I have lost count of the times I’ve been told by MPs and Ministers, all the way up to Prime Ministers – plural, four of them! – that farming is at the forefront of this Government’s thinking. But, more often than not, it has been incredibly hard getting the Government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions.”
Two days later, as the lively conference drew to a close, she finished on a pragmatic but positive note by speaking to the future farmers in the room, saying: “Young people, we will have a bright future. There will be bumps in the road, but we will end the journey of words. And we will get action.”