NFU24: “I’ve got your back” – PM’s promise in the face of rising food insecurity

'Silver bullet' cash boosts, tech funds and horticulture missed from the bigger picture

On 20 February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a series of support measures and initiatives to delegates at NFU24. The last time a PM attended the NFU conference was in 2008. A lot has changed – namely that numerous, growing crises within our global food systems have propelled farming to top of the public and political agendas. 

Declaring ‘I’ve got your back’ to the thousands of farmers in attendance, many of whom have been pushed to the brink of survival, the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary announced a range of measures designed to “boost productivity and resilience” across the sector with an expected £427 million grant offer for farmers on the way within the coming financial year.

The outgoing NFU president, Minette Batters called into question the government’s ‘manifesto commitment’, and their reframing of old money repackaged as ‘new’. She also made it clear that realistic projections, based on the latest NFU research, show that £4.5 billion is far closer to what’s needed, if the government is to have any hope of reinvigorating farming in the UK, for the long-term. Sunak responded by saying, “I absolutely want to deliver, to the penny, what we committed to you, which is that all of the £2.4 billion, for every year of this parliament, will come to you.”

Commenting on Rishi Sunak’s announcement, The Soil Association’s Head of Farming Policy, Gareth Morgan said: “Cash boosts for our farmers who are facing so much uncertainty are welcome but [the] announcement smacks of a search for silver bullet solutions instead of mapping out a more realistic future. Instead of hoping for the price of fossil-fuel derived fertilisers to come down, government should be investing in research, advice and support for farmers to move away from dependence on damaging and expensive inputs.”

According to Defra, the government’s latest announcements include boosting schemes such as the Improving Farming Productivity grant, which provides support for farmers to invest in automation and robotics, as well as solar installations to build on-farm energy security. The Prime Minister also announced a new annual Food Security Index to capture and drill down on the data needed to monitor levels of food security within the UK, which follows NFU campaigning on the importance of food security, resulting in 45,000 members of the public calling on the government to take action via the NFU’s Food Security Campaign.

It’s true that the UK is far from being food-secure; the Government estimates that just under half of the food on our plates is produced in the UK Sustainable Farming Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, Will White

“The Food Foundation’s Broken Plate report paints an even grimmer picture for household food security: the poorest 20 per cent in the UK would need to spend half of their disposable income to afford a government-recommended healthy diet,” continues Sustain’s Will White. “In June 2023, 17 per cent of households faced food insecurity, with often the only option being cheap, ultra-processed foods. Unhealthy food is propelling obesity rates toward a projected 40 per cent by 2035, with a staggering financial burden on the NHS projected to surpass £15 billion. It’s clear: our current food system is failing to provide accessible, affordable and nutritious food for all.”

“For true food security, the government must bolster the Sustainable Farming Incentives with a bold vision for resilient farming, following the lead set by organic and agroecological farmers who are using truly sustainable and regenerative approaches,” agrees The Soil Association’s Head of Farming Policy, Gareth Morgan. “Other countries across the rest of Europe have targets to boost organic farming, recognising the benefits already being delivered. Without targets to deliver this type of clear vision, farmers will be ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change while imports meet the growing demand for sustainable and organic food.”

The answer is to pay the farmers properly in the first place, and protect them from competition from imports that are produced to lower standards than we have here in the UK Riverford founder, Guy Singh-Watson

 “We know that food production is important for the nation’s food security– and we’re clear that this can be done in harmony with nature,” points out Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers. “Riverford has been doing this for over 35 years. We are proof that it can be done, but farmers need a fair deal in the supply chain, so that systems like our own can flourish.

I do not believe that the answer to the UK’s farming problems is to ditch the green cap, subsidise fossil fuels and continue to allow neo nicotinoids; the answer is to pay the farmers properly in the first place, and protect them from competition from imports that are produced to lower standards than we have here in the UK,” adds Singh-Watson.

“If the government are serious about food security, they should revive the horticulture strategy, which they ditched last year. We’re heavily reliant on imports, with 85 per cent of our fruit and 43 per cent of our vegetables currently imported. Simply offshoring our emissions, biodiversity loss, and water usage to other countries represents a shunning of our own responsibility to produce fruit and vegetables sustainably,” adds Sustain’s Will White.

The Prime Minister also announced plans to cut red tape around permitted development rights so farmers can develop buildings and diversify their businesses. Fairness in the supply chain was also on the agenda – new regulations for the dairy sector are presently on Parliament’s table – the focus on reasonable and transparent contracts, with similar regulations for the pig sector due to come later this year, with the egg sector expected to follow. A new supply chain fairness review of the poultry sector is also set to be launched, and Defra is expected to consult stakeholders on whether the sheep and beef sectors should follow. 

Horticulture, however, was the glaring omission in the government’s future plans, something that Harriet Bell, Regenerative Farming Lead at Riverford Organic Farmers, feels the public ought to be questioning: “Horticulture is the smartest option for UK food security, both for our own health and the health of the environment. That no mention of this sector was made by the Prime Minister, despite the government’s Fresh Produce Supply Chain review still being open for comment, shows just how undervalued this essential sector really is.

Thank goodness for the British public, more than 100,000 of whom signed our Get Fair About Farming petition, demanding better treatment for our fruit and veg farmers who are on their knees – with almost half expecting to be out of business within the year. We’re also perplexed as to why the government is failing to ‘join up’ regulation across the whole supply chain – instead, tasking different departments with regulating different parts of the samesupply chain. This feels like a recipe for siloed thinking and ultimately, exposes our farmers to supermarket exploitation of these weaknesses. It also ignores multiple, cross-party calls to review and strengthen the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and bring desperately needed industry-wide reform to the sector.”


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