Minette Batters calls for urgent Government action to support farmers during and beyond coronavirus crisis

NFU president Minette Batters, on behalf of a number of leading UK farming organisations, has called for urgent action from the Government to back British farmers during the Coronavirus crisis.

In 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, co-signed by the 18 members of the UK Roundtable on Farming, 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.”

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