Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Minette Batters President NFU


SOPHY RIDGE: Now in the last week supermarkets have warned there could be price rises and food shortages if we leave the EU without a deal but what’s the reality? Let’s try and find out and joining us now from her farm just outside Shrewsbury is the President of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters. Thank you very much for being with us. Now I am keen to talk to you first of all about the impact of no-deal because it does feel like it is a very real possibility, one member of the Cabinet described it to me as about 50/50. What do you think the impact of a no-deal Brexit would be?

MINETTE BATTERS: Well the no-deal aspect for my sector, Sophy, is absolutely huge. Agriculture is very reliant, it is critical dependencies if you like, 95% of our animal medicines and vaccines are currently made in the EU, chemicals, fertilisers, it’s been a vital route if you like but the real aspect in all of this and why we believe long-term to crash out with a deal is so bad, not just for our sector but for food in general. If you are talking about food inflation, and government is clear it doesn’t want to see a rise of more than 5% and so it is prepared to allow food to come in here without any tariffs on it. For animal and animal products farmers are facing an immediate trade embargo, we’d been on third country most favoured nation status on 30th March, potentially carved out of the market for six months, organics carved out for nine months or longer. Then of course when we regain market access we face the high tariff wall of the EU and it’s clear that government intends to impose its own tariff wall, potentially no tariff wall on food imports. It can’t just do that for the EU, it has to do it for the rest of the world so we’d be subsumed by cheap imports and we know that British consumers really value our high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and above all else, food safety. So this is huge for every single person and I think it’s not understood actually what no-deal means.

SR: We often take questions from viewers and I have to say, when I said that you were coming on the show we got a lot of passion on it, it is clearly a subject matter that people are quite concerned about. I’ve just got one question here from a man called Tim Kirkby who wants to ask about what happens if there are problems at the borders in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He says, “What in season foods can Britain’s farmers provide immediately and can they provide sufficient amounts of it to feed the population?”

MINETTE BATTERS: Well at certain times of year, yes, absolutely we can and certainly post-Brexit, indeed now, we could have been producing much more of our fruit and veg at home but of course we have been very reliant on people choosing to come here, seasonal workers coming here, we have been the preferred destination to come and pick fruit and veg. That is all now put massively in jeopardy and at this time of year, I was talking to Riverford Organics in the week and Guy Watson telling me that they are totally reliant on being able to bring in broccoli and many other things at this time of year from Spain. So you can see by my farm at the moment, we have got a really heavy frost, it’s minus seven today, a snow covering. Of course in the spring, summer, autumn, yes, we can produce a lot more but at this time of year it is really not a great time of year. We are into really the root vegetables, leeks, Brussels sprouts and people have got used to a wide variety, really having anything they want at any time of year. Seasonality now for consumers is really a forgotten past.

SR: One way of forcing us to eat Brussels sprouts I suppose. If Britain was self-sufficient when would we run out of food?

MINETTE BATTERS: Well look, we produce roughly 60% of the food that we consume here in the UK. We have a brilliant climate for growing food, we are the second largest producer of sheep meat in the world, second to New Zealand so we are self-sufficient in areas, particularly liquid milk, the dairy industry can’t import liquid milk of course but I think food has been taken for granted for far, far too long and if you look at the role of Farm Assurance, the little red tractor logo that shows with the Union Jack that it has been produced and reared in the UK and many other assurance schemes like the Leaf Mark, RSPCA, Organic Certified – what I would say about this tariff situation and bringing cheap imports in, this is the key question because it would undermine British production. We are the third cheapest producer in the world so the people that say this is about cheaper food, Brexit, actually consumers in this country are getting a great deal already, food is incredibly cheap, many would say far too cheap in the UK with British farmers and growers taking less than 6% out of that value. So I really hope that food can rise up the political agenda. It is absolutely savage for us, a no-deal, I cannot imagine how bad it would look because we’d see a long-term future of just bringing cheaper imports in and whenever I raise this with Liam Fox or Michael Gove or the Prime Minister, there are no plans at the moment. We’ve said we want this put in writing, on our high standards of animal welfare and protection, they haven’t put it in writing yet and we continue to ask and it’s a question that absolutely must be answered before we leave on 29th March.

SR: That’s interesting, so what have those people said? What has the Prime Minister said to you, what have they said to you in those meetings or what haven’t they said?

MINETTE BATTERS: Well we have had a lot of warm words on this, that we would not look to lower our standards, we would not look to bring food in that is produced to lower standards but ultimately if we are going to leave in an orderly way with a deal, if we are going to negotiate free trade agreements across the world, then this has to be put in writing, it has to be legislated on. We have asked in a UK wide group together to agree what we would want on animal welfare, environment protection and food safety, a black and white statement and this is not about farmers this is about consumers, 66 million consumers across the UK that really value the standards of production. We want it put in writing and it still hasn’t been put in writing when we have eight weeks to go. It is really, simply not good enough.

SR; You paint quite a concerning picture saying no-deal would be savage for the industry but at the same time a lot of farmers voted to leave the EU, many of them because they don’t much like the Common Agricultural Policy, many of them because they feel that the current subsidies regime is unfair. So are there some positives from Brexit, could we start buying more locally and actually valuing our product a bit more.

MINETTE BATTERS: I think if nothing else at this moment, the government understands the agriculture and the feeds system far better than it did, that is a concern in itself and yes, if we leave in an orderly manner, if we are prepared to have agriculture as part of those free trade agreements and not sacrifice – I mean just to put it into context, the CITA deal which is the Canadian trade deal with the European Union, that took over ten years to achieve and in the end it was brought to a standstill by three Belgian dairy farmers. Agriculture, food, is always the last chapter in any trade deal to be agreed and my huge worry is that we are an economy now based on services and financial services, goods is only 20% of the economy and although food and farming is the largest and indeed only primary manufacturing sector, it has to feature in these free trade agreements and we are just not getting the assurance that we would like to have.

SR: Now we are almost out of time but there is one question I want to ask you before I let you go inside and warm up. You are the first ever female President of the NFU and farming isn’t traditionally seen as a women’s job, if you read books to kids it is always about the farmer and his wife, so I just wanted to ask you if you have experienced much sexism on your way to the top?

MINETTE BATTERS: No, not at all. It is a bizarre concept really because I think in all industries women have always been involved, they are very much partnership businesses, here in the UK we are all about family farming businesses so it is generally a family running that business, women are the backbone of those businesses and I guess success for me is when being a women isn’t newsworthy.

SR: A very good answer and I hope at one point I won’t have to be asking these questions. Thank you very much for coming on the show today, it is much appreciated.

MINETTE BATTERS: Thanks so much.