Britain’s farmers battered by Brexit fallout and rising costs, says union

Minette Batters

“The clock is ticking” to support Britain’s farmers battered by a storm of rising costs, labour shortages, bird flu and post-Brexit changes to support payments, the union representing the sector has told ministers.

“Volatility, uncertainty and instability” are endangering UK farm businesses, according to the National Farmers’ Union, which is urging the government to support British food producers so they can keep supplying squeezed UK households and a growing global population.

Thousands of farmers from England and Wales will gather in Birmingham on Tuesday for the NFU’s annual conference, against the backdrop of a string of challenges for the agricultural sector.

The NFU president, Minette Batters, will outline “three cornerstones” for ensuring that UK food production prospers, and call on the government to ensure its farming policy achieves this by “boosting productivity, protecting the environment and managing volatility”.

Batters – who has a cattle, sheep and arable farm in Wiltshire – will also say that farmers and growers have an “opportunity, and a duty, to get the best out of our maritime climate” to continue providing food for consumers at home and abroad, while remaining committed to achieving net zero and generating renewable energy on their farms.

“The fact remains, volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses in England and Wales today. Critically, those consequences will be felt far beyond farming; they will be felt across the natural environment, and in struggling households across the country,” Batters will say.

Much has changed for farmers since last year’s get-together, which closed just hours before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The conflict sparked an increase in energy prices, disrupted global supply chains, and led to soaring costs of energy, fuel, fertiliser and animal feed, all of which are crucial for farmers.

High energy prices remain one of the main challenges, combined with chronic labour shortages affecting the poultry industry, which is also dealing with the avian influenza outbreak. Pig farms and horticulture businesses have also been knocked by energy costs and lack of staff.

These pressures grew during 2022, when many farmers and growers also had to contend with drought and an extremely hot spell.

It comes at a time when many farmers believe they have been undercut by the trade deals negotiated by the government, and are unimpressed with ministers’ plans for its post-Brexit environmental land management schemes (Elms), subsidies designed to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP).

Agricultural inputs have risen by nearly 50% since 2019, amid huge cost inflation, Batters will say, which could trigger a slump in UK food production.

“The impact of this? UK egg production has fallen to its lowest level in nine years. In 2022, UK egg packers packed almost a billion fewer eggs than they did in 2019.”

Keir Starmer will make his pitch to food producers when he addresses the conference on Tuesday, telling them they “deserve better” and pledging to back them in international trade negotiations and support British-grown produce.

The Labour leader will commit to ensuring that half of all food bought by the public sector would be produced locally and sustainably.

Calculating this would amount to £1.2bn of public spending under his government, Starmer will tell delegates: “50% is just the minimum. We will do everything to go beyond it. We will buy more cereals, more oilseed rape, more strawberries, more beef and more British apples.”

Describing the rural vote as “crucial” in the next general election, Batters will tell the conference: “The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do.”

However, she will add that the opposition will also not be “let … off the hook”.