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Farming risks being ‘poor relation to other national priorities’ as PM pledges to stick ‘by farmers’ sides’

The head of the National Farmers’ Union has warned food security risks becoming a “poor relation” to other national priorities, as the prime minister today promises it members government will stick “by their side”.

Speaking before the annual NFU conference begins on Tuesday, the organisation’s chief Minette Batters said food production is increasingly having to compete for land and resources with homes, tree planting and climate plans.

“If we don’t take food production seriously… we will lose those farm businesses,” she told Sky News, with the number of agricultural businesses falling by 7,000 since 2019.

Ms Batters urged whoever forms the next government to “treat it as one vital part of our national infrastructure. Don’t make it the poor relation”.

The NFU wants the government to introduce targets for the amount of food that is produced in the UK, as it has for tree-planting and house-building.

Rishi Sunak will on Tuesday be the first prime minister to attend the annual conference since Gordon Brown in 2008, as he seeks to win back the waning rural vote in the run-up to the general election.

Mr Sunak is expected to say: “While the importance of farmers will never change – farming is going through its biggest change in a generation. And as farmers do so, this government will be by their side.”

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He will tell farmers his government would “never take our food security for granted”.

Support for the Tories is slipping away in rural seats, according to a Survation survey, with communities there angry about the fallout from Brexit, flooding and the sewage water pollution scandal.

The NFU represents about one third (47,000) of agricultural businesses in England in Wales, but is a well-organised and influential lobby group.

In his speech, the PM will announce pots of cash to help farmers, coming from the existing £2.4bn annual farming budget.

These include £116m to help store manure and slurry and to stop it from polluting rivers when it is strewn on fields.

Run-off from agriculture is around as big a cause of river pollution as sewage discharges from water companies – though not quite as damaging.

The River Wye, dotted with intensive poultry farms, is suffering in particular and campaigners have taken the Environment Agency to court in a bid to enforce stricter rules on farms.

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Farming has been badly hit by flooding in the UK and many farmers are calling on the government to invest more in river defences to protect food production.

Ms Batters insisted the problem came from only a “small minority” of businesses but accepted that “we need to deal with it”.

“Farming wants to play its part… A lot of these are vital nutrients to help build soil health, but you want them in the soil, not in the water.”

And she said the country’s “long term cheap food policy” had put “enormous pressures” on farmers.

“At the moment we’re putting more and more cost and risk onto the business. That is unsustainable. The danger then is we just export our production and our conscience abroad,” she warned.

In a wide-ranging interview before she steps down as NFU president tomorrow, Ms Batters also said Brexit had not brought the “bonfire of regulation” that was promised, and that it was still “unknown” if it had been overall good or bad for farming.

She also warned against the farmers’ protests seen in Europe and India and recently in Wales spreading further into the UK.

“If you start to disrupt people’s daily lives, I think you can lose support of the public,” as was the case with Just Stop Oil, she said.

The PM is also allocating money from the farming budget to new technology, such as kit that increases automation to reduce reliance on overseas workers, and rooftop solar.

Steve Reed is Labour’s shadow environment secretary, who has been seeking to charm rural seats that previously would have been a write-off for Labour.

He said: “This Conservative government has undermined British farming.

“They put up trade barriers that blocked food exports and let energy bills soar out of control, crippling producers and putting thousands out of business.”

The parties will battle it out at a hustings event at the conference on Wednesday, involving the UK government’s farming minister Mark Spencer, Labour’s shadow minister Daniel Zeichner and Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson.

Sky News Source