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Batters urges Government to back British farming during coronavirus crisis

14th Apr 2020 / By Alistair Driver

NFU president Minette Batters, on behalf of leading UK farming organisations, including NPA, has urged the Government to do more to back British farmers during the Coronavirus crisis.

Eustice BattersIn a letter to Defra Secretary George Eustice, Mrs Batters said farmers were failing to understand the lack of action from Government to address the significant disruption the industry is facing.

She called for the Government to encourage retailers and public bodies like the NHS and prisons to source more food domestically and to ‘vocally back a vigorous campaign’ to promote British food. She urged Defra to delay the first reductions to BPS payments in England by at least a year.

The letter is co-signed by the 18 members of the UK Roundtable on Farming, of which the NPA is a member.

It highlights how COVID-19 has brought ‘huge disruption’ to the supply chain and personal risk to people working across it, on top of the impact on both arable and livestock farmers of one of the wettest winters on record.

Ahead of Mr Eustice’s attendance at Thursday’s roundtable meeting, Mr Batters urged him to ‘champion the situation of UK farming in Cabinet’.

She welcomed his commitment to act alongside his devolved colleagues to support the industry and the financial measures introduced by the Government that have helped the industry, including funding to furlough workers.

But she stressed that this was a ‘dynamic and unpredictable’ situation, with virtually every commodity damaged by the situation, including dairy farmers being forced to pour away milk and ornamental growers having to compost plants due to lack of demand.

“Our farmers are failing to understand why Defra and the UK Government are not taking urgent and decisive action to address the significant disruption and unstable returns they now receive,” she said.

“Members of the roundtable know that tackling COVID-19 impacts requires immediate mitigation and longer-term review and reform.”

She urged Mr Eustice to publish a White Paper to set the foundations for a more resilient and sustainable domestic food and farming supply chain.

But she stressed that more immediate action is required, including:

  • Pointing out that the Government has suspended the normal operation of Competition Law to ensure retailers can fulfil demand, Mrs Batters said Government ‘must surely encourage retailers to source their products from domestic sources’.
  • British procurement for the NHS, military and prisons should also be prioritised, she added.
  • She called on Mr Eustice and other Farming Ministers to ‘unequivocally and vocally back a vigorous campaign for British farm produce to be the premier supplier of choice to UK consumers and Government during and beyond this COVID-19 outbreak’. She said the NFU was working with AHDB and other devolved organisations on this and asked Defra and the Devolved administrations to commit resources to this end.
  • Defra should reconsider the seven-year Agricultural Transition timetable for English farmers, Mrs Batters. She the decision to postpone the consultation on introduction of the ELMS environmental scheme threw the tight timetable further into question. Given the ‘disruptive impact’ of COVID-19 on Defra’s and farmers’ capability to prepare for change, she said: “We believe that Defra should delay the first BPS reduction scheduled for December 2021, to December 2022, at the earliest.”

NPA comment

NPA senior policy adviser Ed Barker, who sits on the Roundtable and will be taking part in another conference call with Mr Eustice on Thursday, said the NPA agreed with the sentiments of the letter, although the issues the pig sector faces particularly around staffing, are much smaller than other sectors. The pork supply chain has largely held up, as domestic retail demand and Chinese exports have compensated for lost foodservice sales and processors have continued to operate at close to full capacity. 

"While the concern is currently more for the beef and dairy sectors, the NPA is party to discussions at high level with other stakeholders and Defra Ministers and continues to raise issues of concern within the pig sector," he said.

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