Farming, the countryside and Brexit: ‘If the 287 million dairy cows in the world were all as efficient as ours, we might get somewhere’

Kate Green reports back from the Oxford Farming Conference, where farmers, environmentalists and the DEFRA secretary locked horns on the future of the British countryside.

As Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers attempted to provide reassurance at the that the Government would protect British farming standards against overseas competition in EU trade negotiations, one farmer baldly asked: ‘Will you have our backs?’ She pledged to support livestock farming against what she agreed was ‘the simplistic labelling of meat-eating as being a negative factor in climate change’ and to be ‘always guided by the science’, confirming that badger culls will remain integral to controlling bovine TB.

Farmers complained about the influence of the rewilding lobby, including from within Defra. They requested better control over Government departments, such as the Environment Agency, and more reliable statistics to stop farming being ‘a soft target’ in the climate-change debate.

‘This will test the moral compass of some in Government, but failure to deliver is not an option’

Mrs Villiers promised to relay concerns to Cabinet. ‘This Government has been re-elected with a substantial majority, but that is on the basis of a manifesto with much more far-reaching commitments on the environment than any predecessors. Our new approach to farm support is going to play a central role in achieving those crucial twin goals of protecting climate and protecting Nature.’

NFU president Minette Batters pressed her to commit to a food standards commission to scrutinise trade deals. ‘Will this Government work with us to drive forward our vision for net-zero emissions by 2040? Will you use the powers in the Agriculture Bill to improve the stability of our supply chains and will Government pull together a council on food standards? This will test the moral compass of some in Government, but failure to deliver is not an option.’

‘If we do deals with countries that undercut standards, it will undermine everything farmers do here’

‘Trade trumps everything,’ added Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth. ‘We can have the best systems here, but if we do deals with countries that undercut standards, it will undermine everything farmers do here.’

Mrs Villiers conceded that agriculture ‘was the last piece of the jigsaw’ in exiting the EU, but said: ‘The high standards of British farming are the backbone of our biggest manufacturing sector (food and drink) that exports £22 billion’s worth to more than 200 countries. We will not dilute our strong environmental protection or our high standards of food safety and animal welfare. Let’s face it, even limited access to our £47 billion market for food is a big prize for any country.’

As ‘Veganuary’ entered its second week, Mrs Batters advocated that it’s ‘time to move on from the divisive plant-versus-meat debate. The carbon footprint of our cattle is already 2½ times lower than the global average — if the 287 million dairy cows in the world were all as efficient as ours, we might get somewhere’.

‘The rural economy has immense potential, but we need the right policies to unleash it’

Mr Bennett, who supports moderate meat-eating, pointed out that ‘agriculture is not the biggest driver [of emissions], not by a long way. Fossil fuels is. The problem has never really been farmers, but agriculture policy. The public goods [for which farmers will be paid under new schemes] needs to be a good list’.

Mrs Villiers urged farmers to apply for new, individually tailored Environmental Land Management schemes. CLA president Mark Bridgeman described these as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’, but cautioned: ‘The Secretary of State must allow proper time for members of the rural community to adjust, which might mean delaying the transition. The rural economy has immense potential, but we need the right policies to unleash it.’