National Head of Farming and Eastern Regional Chairman
A lot has happened since George Eustice was appointed Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 2015: the EU referendum, the triggering of Article 50 and a snap general election. At a time of political and economic uncertainty, we ask how the government is helping agriculture overcome its key challenges.
According to the NFU, the agricultural sector contributes £24 billion in revenues to the UK economy, but often seems to have less of a voice than other sectors such as financial services. How important is the farming sector when it comes to Brexit negotiations and how will you ensure that its voice is heard?
Having worked in the farming industry for almost a decade, I am truly passionate about the future of this vital sector. Since the vote to leave the EU, I have travelled up and down the country meeting farmers and hearing their hopes for the future of agricultural policy – as well as their concerns. As we prepare to leave the EU, we want to work with everyone who has an interest in making our food and farming industry a success. I truly believe this is a fantastic opportunity to design a system that works for our farmers and I am determined to do just that.
Red tape is often cited as one of the bugbears of the farming sector. Are high levels of regulation necessary for high-quality farming or are there ways that standards can be maintained under a lighter regulatory framework?
We want a real culture change in the way we approach agricultural policy. We want to make it less about judging farmers against a lengthy rulebook and more about fewer, more significant interventions that make a real difference to our farmers and our environment. Work on this is already under way – we launched a Farm Visits Coordination Unit last year and have already cut thousands of farm visits, as well as introducing simpler rules on livestock movements. For far too long, a bureaucratic system that tries to meet the needs of 28 countries has held our farmers back. I strongly believe leaving the EU is a great opportunity to design a new system that works for British farmers and we are firmly committed to cutting unnecessary red tape so farmers can focus on farming rather than filling forms.
Welfare standards are becoming increasingly important for consumers. Would you like to see labelling that differentiates between basic welfare standards and the higher standards of production followed by British farmers?
The UK has one of the best scores on the World Animal Protection Index and our meat and dairy products are produced to the highest welfare standards. Exiting the EU will enable the UK to insist on higher environmental and welfare standards, and any new products wishing to enter the UK market will have to comply with our rigorous safety and welfare standards. Our food labelling schemes already enable shoppers to choose food according to their ethical concerns. For example, the Red Tractor label shows food has been produced to the required standards of the UK industry, and products of British origin are labelled as such.
Life sciences, at which the UK excels, are producing groundbreaking work. In the future, how can these innovations be introduced safely into farming-based food production in the UK?
Innovation is key to competing internationally, unlocking the potential of our food and farming sectors by improving productivity and tackling problems such as pests and disease. With global demand for food projected to grow 60% by 2050, we want our food and farming industries to be best placed to take advantage of this growing demand. We are ready to work with the industry and its scientific know-how to introduce innovations safely into working practice.
Is food security a priority for Defra? What steps is the government taking to minimise the risks to the UK food chain?
The UK has a high degree of food security, built upon a wide range of diverse sources, and we work with international partners to ensure this remains the case. We also invest heavily in new innovations across the supply chain, including providing £160 million through the Agri-Tech Strategy to improve the flow of ideas and solutions from the laboratory to the farm and beyond.