Reflections on day one of NFU18

Patrick Begg, our Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, is at the National Farmers Union Conference this week. In this blog, Patrick reflects on the Environment Secretary’s speech yesterday, and offers some thoughts for the future.

Michael Gove has never been a politician with a confidence deficit. Today at the NFU Annual Conference he played to form. His mantra of ‘public money for public goods’ was implicit in everything he told Conference. And much to his credit, he stuck to his guns even under questions. The environment is the cause most in need of public finance, he said.

His speech covered support for new tech, research and development, collaboration in the farming industry, soils, public health, and export potential. Each stopping-off point was tagged with the clear ambition that public investment should “contribute to the health of the natural environment”.

We should applaud this clear restatement of ambition, repeated in a forum where the audience would not necessarily share the entirety of that vision. This is a steadfast Secretary of State, with a clear purpose which aligns fundamentally with ours.

The farming audience listened intently, clapped politely at the end but also rumbled and shifted in their seats. Given the importance of brilliant, sustainable farming and farmers to the restoration and stewardship of our natural environment, it’s important to understand the nervousness and lack of confidence on show.

The Secretary of State painted a picture of boundless export opportunity and of liberation after being freed from the dead hand of CAP. This may have been compelling to some, but others were clearly not in that place. In an afternoon session with the authors of the recent Efra Select Committee on trade, the stresses and uncertainties fully emerged.

The UK was characterised either as becoming a trading fortress, or a free for all after March 2019. The latter could result in a race to the bottom on standards, as the UK tries to compete with cheap imports flooding in from WTO behemoths such as the USA. The former, where protectionism prevails, could lead to huge, retaliatory export tariffs: 45% on beef or 26% sheep. Both those numbers would devastate UK livestock farming.

The mood of the room seemed to want the trade deal and markets British farmers currently enjoy, as part of the EU. But the political space for that outcome feels vanishingly small, seen either from a UK perspective (‘we voted to leave’) or an EU one (‘we can’t be seen to reward leaving the club’).

Whatever the outcome, business disruption, a high risk trading climate and effects on people and their families seems likely.

So where does that leave us all? My sense is we need to do three things:

  • reinforce with all positivity how we feel about the Government’s vision for a restored natural environment, with public finance generously rewarding the brilliant, nature-friendly farming that we know is possible. We need the politicians to know that they are on the right track and that our movement will support them.
  • do all we can to reach out to a nervous, uncertain farming community currently standing on the unsteadiest of ground. Let’s demonstrate to farmers that we empathise. We need to articulate what a public-benefit and nature-focussed future, where great food is still at the core of the business, looks like, and why it offers the long term resilience they crave.
  • then convince Government to create the schemes, with the money needed, to deliver. Farmers are legitimately worried that doing good things for the environment could be a zero sum gain, especially if ‘income foregone’ continues to underpin the financial calculations. We need a better formula, focussing on outcomes.

Mr Gove offered one phrase which I think should be nailed onto the new Agriculture Bill as its boiler plate. He said: “the only real trend of our time is to feed our nation with food that is healthy, both for us and the planet”. Hear, hear to that.

Patrick Begg, Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, National Trust.

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