Efforts by farmers to improve Britain’s food and energy security will be “strangled at birth” without smarter spending and incentives from Government, farming leaders have warned ahead of a major event in Birmingham.
Speaking ahead of the National Farmers’ Union conference on Tuesday, the organisation’s president Peter Kendall said agriculture could provide solutions to problems the UK would face in the future - but politicians needed to spend money more wisely on farming.
The annual conference at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole, at the NEC, will hear from Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert and Lib Dem environment spokesman Tim Farron.
Mr Kendall warned that whoever won the general election would have to face the threat of energy crises, food shortages and the impacts of climate change and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The NFU president pointed to the comments of Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who led the “green revolution” in agriculture to increase yields, who said that in the coming 50 years the world would have to produce more food than in the past 10,000 years.
“In response to this challenge, farmers could double their wheat and oilseed rape production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and benefiting biodiversity,” Mr Kendall said.
“While producing more food we also have the capacity to generate power through hundreds of on-farm anaerobic digestion plants using farm slurry and waste.
“As well as contributing to the National Grid, these could also turn farm manure into fertiliser for re-use on soils and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions - everybody wins.
“But - and this is a big but - unless Government agrees to sensible financial incentives and smarter spending, the solutions on offer will be strangled at birth.”
He said it was not a case of spending more money on agriculture, but spending more wisely, providing a long-term framework which would help small farm businesses.
Mr Kendall said the £1,740 spent processing each single farm payment under the Common Agricultural Policy in England - compared with just £285 in Scotland - showed how much money was currently wasted in agriculture and where savings could be made.
Reducing costs to £500 a claim would shave more than £100 million a year off the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) annual spending.
And the cattle tracing system in England covers far fewer animals than a similar scheme in Australia which costs far less than ours.
“Savings in these areas could release money for essential research and development for food production,” Mr Kendall said.
He said £15 million announced recently to get laboratory research into the field was “a great start” but was overshadowed by the bankers’ bailout package of £37 billion.
Ahead of the conference Mr Kendall also hit out at proposals for a “livestock tax” on farmers to pay for dealing with animal disease control, describing the plans as a “head-on mugging for money”.
And the divisive issue of bovine TB and whether politicians should give the go-ahead for a cull of badgers, which carry the disease, is likely to dominate the NFU conference again this year.
When he addresses the conference, Mr Farron will tell farmers the animal tax is an “insulting attempt” by the Government to pass the buck for disease preparation.
He will set out proposals for a powerful food market regulator, claiming Labour and Tory plans to introduce a supermarket ombudsman are just a fig leaf.
And he will defend direct farm payments under the CAP but will urge reform to cut waste and strengthen the farming.