Brexit and Britain’s changing diet forcing farmers to re-think, leading conference hears

Liz Bowles - Head of Farming Soil Association, Neil Parish MP & Minette Batters NFU President (2).jpg
16th November 2018

The chaos of Brexit and the rise of veganism in Britain dominated proceedings at the annual Three Counties Farming Conference as the UK’s most senior farm leaders gathered to tackle imminent threats to the region’s producers and growers.

With ministers dropping like flies in Parliament on a turbulent day in London, NFU president Minette Batters, MP and chair of the EFRA select committee Neil Parish and Soil Association’s farming head Liz Bowles answered questions in front of a lively audience of 400 farmers.

NFU boss Minette Batters gave a passionate speech about British farming - putting food production at the top of her agenda - and said a ‘no deal’ Brexit would bring untold misery to the agricultural community.

“A no-deal Brexit means disruption and delays at borders, technical restrictions and the threat of import tariffs to name but a few. It would have a huge profound and untold effect. In fact, it would be nothing short of armageddon.”

Arguably Britain’s best-known farmer, Countryfile presenter and Three Counties ambassador Adam Henson, who chaired proceedings at the Three Counties Showground on Thursday night (NOV 15), said farmers had to improve their offering as diets changed.

“Realistically, as farmers we want to produce food that people buy so if they want more veg and less sheep then let’s produce more veg,” Adam explained.

“What farmers really need to take away from tonight is they’ve got to be really business minded. They need to be on top of their game and they need to re-think their businesses if they are to survive in the great unknown of Brexit.”

At the Farming Conference held in association with Knight Frank, Minette challenged Neil Parish to ‘corral’ Government in support of British agriculture.

She rallied: “This country has never felt more politically homeless. We were promised less regulation and more money so you can see why farmers thought Brexit was hugely appealing. But everyone who drove that agenda is now off and at the moment I can see us crashing out. How can you corral people to ensure we get the best deal?

“1 in 8 people work in food and farming yet we have lost that connection with the general public,” she lamented.

Mr Parish said he would “redouble” his efforts but added that clarity on the Brexit negotiations was in short supply.

“Britain produces great quality, highly traceable food. It’s very sustainable and safe to eat food - that’s what our consumers want. All we need now is to get a deal and get on with it.”

In a challenging speech, Liz Bowles said the change in people’s dietary habits and the findings from the recent climate change report meant farmers needed to think seriously about the impact their operation was having on the environment.

“We should eat less but better meat, and by better meat we generally mean pasture-fed or organic,” Liz explained. “Responding to climate change challenges will become a priority for agriculture. I don’t subscribe to the view that we have to produce ever more food. We waste 20% of the food that we produce and our diets contain far too many calories.

“There are ways of feeding the world, protecting the environment and mitigating the impact farming has on climate change.”

Diana Walton, head of shows at Three Counties, says she feared for jobs, exports and subsidies as farmers, growers and producers in the region prepare for Brexit.

“Holding the conference on a day when Parliament seemed to self-destruct simply highlighted the malaise,” she said.

“It is a perilous time for everyone in our region. Brexit has caused both heartache and headaches for our army of farmers, growers and producers and they very much fear for the future.

“Uncertainty can rock any industry but it’s the level of impact we’re already seeing which is giving us cause for concern.”