The Government has been warned it must match its rhetoric on the importance of food security with action to make British farming more productive.
Speaking ahead of its annual conference in Birmingham, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Peter Kendall raised concerns that politicians had not “got up to speed” on what scientific projections suggest is the growing issue of food security in the face of a rising global population, climate change and scarcer resources.
For example, he said, farmers are meeting with the Government at Monday’s drought summit to discuss the part they can play in dealing with water shortages, but reforms to tax rules meant there was no incentive to construct new reservoirs on their land.
He also said the Government’s failure to bring in a groceries code adjudicator, to police the behaviour of major retailers toward farmers and processors, was “anti-business”.
He said: “I’m frankly worried the big retailers are crawling all over Number 10 and Number 11 saying no to regulation, but having no grocery adjudicator is more anti-business.”
Elsewhere, however, he called for less regulation to allow farmers to be more productive, suggesting the industry would do better with increased education on environmental and sustainability issues rather than rules that, for example, force the replacement of old slurry containers even if there is no evidence they are leaking.
And he said: “Farming is engaging in renewables investments, looking at what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, use less fuel, produce more in a smarter way and there’s a massive engagement in environmental schemes.
“Generally farming is in good heart, the industry wants to invest in the future.”
But despite the “right” rhetoric coming from the Environment Department on cutting farming regulations and reforming the EU policy which pays subsidies to farmers to help them be more productive, he said he did not believe the Treasury understood the importance of such measures.
One area where he praised the Government for taking steps to help farmers was in giving the green light to piloting a cull of badgers as part of efforts to reduce TB in cattle, a disease which can spread from the wild animals to livestock.
The NFU annual conference is braced for protests from animal welfare campaigners angry at the decision by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who is speaking at the meeting, to let the cull go ahead.
But in a direct message to campaigners, Mr Kendall said: “This is not something that the farming community is wanting, this is something being done with a heavy heart.
“We have always had to manage wildlife populations. We understand that badgers are protected but where they are causing massive damage to businesses, families and lives, we must control their numbers.
“This is not about wiping out badgers,” he added.
And he said proposals for a mega pig farm in Derbyshire, which has also been criticised by animal welfare campaigners, was an example of sustainable development and a better alternative for pork production than importing meat products from other countries with lower welfare standards.
As the row over planning reforms continues to rage, Mr Kendall urged ministers to allow farmers to build and develop, warning “we do need a presumption for sympathetic and sustainable development - we can’t live in some past rural idyll”.
He added that there were a range of iconic British brands such as Colman’s Mustard which could be promoted much more strongly overseas, providing a boost to producers and processors in the UK.