UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new package of measures for farmers at the annual NFU Conference following an opening address from NFU president Minette Batters, in which she highlighted the importance of sustainable food production being given the same ambition as legislated environmental targets.

In her opening address at the NFU’s annual Conference, Batters highlighted the need for all political parties to commit to giving food security the same strategic priority as energy security, drawing attention to the solutions put forward in the NFU’s General Election manifesto.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was welcomed to the stage following Batters’ address, with the PM immediately responding to her speech by detailing a new package of measures that the Government would be rolling out to aid farmers.

Included in the package was a grant offer totalling £427 million for farmers in the coming financial year, and Sunak also revealed that the Farm-to-Fork Summit would be held annually.

In addition, the Government will double the Management Payment for SFI so those with existing agreements will receive up to an extra £1,000 this spring and it will be extended to Countryside Stewardship mid tier for the first year of agreements starting by March 2025. This means that the 11,000 farmers that have applied for SFI will receive that top up this spring.

PM Rishi Sunak addressed delegates, saying: “We promise that across this Parliament every single penny of the £2.4 billion annual farming budget will be spent on you, and we will absolutely meet that promise.

“We’re also launching the biggest package of grants this year to boost productivity and resilience, which will total £220 million.

“We’re strengthening support for your primary role – to produce the nation’s food. Food security is a vital part of our national security, and recent years have brought home the truth of that.

“Today I can announce that we will step up our monitoring with a new annual Food Security Index, which we expect to be UK-wide. And yes Minette, we’ll make this statutory when Parliamentary time allows.”

Over the past few years, farmers and growers have had to shoulder “unsustainably high” production costs, flooding and crop losses and uncertainty due to changing agricultural and trade policy, which have all contributed to frustration in farming communities.

The NFU will be addressing these issues directly with political leaders and policymakers at its annual conference in Birmingham, which runs from 20-21st February.

General Election will be critical to the future of food

Speaking to more than 1,500 farming, political and stakeholder delegates, Mrs Batters said: “This election will be critical to the future of farming and the food on our supermarket shelves, in our pubs, hotels, bars and restaurants.

“There is a reason why countries invest in food production. It is to mitigate risk and volatility for consumers and give farmers the confidence to keep producing food. But global events have challenged British agriculture, adding to the instability and volatility farmers and growers are facing, when what they really need is certainty.

“That’s why I ask today, which political party will have the right plan for British food?

“Which party will deliver the core standards that ensure food imports meet the same high values of animal welfare and environmental protection as those which British farmers are expected to meet?

“Which party will be the first to set a target for food production with a statutory underpinning? Because there is currently an imbalance between environment and food production in Government policy. We must see changes this year to redress this before many more farms just simply disappear.”

Producing more food with less impact

Batters added that the food and farming industry said that when the NFU of England and Wales said they could beat the Government target on lowering emissions, it was by driving “climate-smart” agriculture policies, incentivising lower emissions and focusing on producing more food with less impact.

She highlighted that a Welsh Government impact assessment for the Sustainable Farming Scheme predicts 122,200 fewer livestock, 5,500 job losses and £199 million loss to farm incomes. She said: “That is a red line and we will never support it. We will sit at the same table and find a solution.”

“Extreme weather has also hit British agriculture hard”, Batters continued. “As we speak, many parts of the country remain flooded. Some winter crops didn’t get planted and some of those that did have been washed away. In places, sugar beet and potatoes remain rotting in the ground. And many of our food producing floodplains have been used to store water to protect houses and businesses. 

“We must pay farmers for storing flood water on their land. We must speed up planning for on farm reservoirs to store water for crop irrigation. Water security must underpin national food security.”

Batters emphasised the need for more fairness in the supply chain, underlining that more needs to be done on the responsibilities of supermarkets to pay a fair price for sustainable food.

Batters went on to say that concerning supply chain fairness, “there is no silver bullet”. She explained: “While there’s no doubt that the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) has transformed the way disputes between supplier and retailer are conducted and resolved, there are still many of our members who will not raise a complaint for fear of being de-listed by supermarkets.

“We need a Blueprint for Action. My suggestion is that the GCA survey of suppliers is used to create a new framework. This would embed retailers’ ethical responsibilities to farmers and growers within their business’s environmental sustainability goals and corporate and social responsibility.

“We know that the British public is behind us every step of the way. In 2023, farming and growing rose to second in the list of professions most valued by the public, behind only nursing. We are immensely grateful for this support – it makes all the difference.

“It’s something our politicians should remember in the runup to the general election too. A recent survey showed that 82% of British people want to see targets to increase homegrown food production, and 66% said that parties’ plans for farming will be one of the issues that affects who they vote for at the general election.

“It couldn’t be clearer – progressive policies on sustainable food production aren’t just important for farmers and growers, but anyone who eats food. And it matters at the ballot box.”