Environment Secretary Steve Barclay delivers speech at 2024 Oxford Farming Conference , outlining the biggest upgrade to the UK’s farming schemes
05 January 2024, UK: Well, Happy New Year, everyone. Thank you, Christopher, for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be invited to join you here in Oxford today. And as someone who represents a farming constituency in a major centre for sugar beet growing in the Cambridgeshire Fens, I’m also acutely aware at this particular time of the impact that flooding on farmland is having.
Indeed, my constituency has given me a strong sense of how fundamental farming is to our economy and to the environment. And in my new role as Secretary of State, I relish the opportunity of ensuring farming and food security is at the heart of government policy.
Because as COVID-19 and the effects of climate change have illustrated, and indeed Tom Bradshaw just made this point on the panel, food security is fundamental to our wider national security. British farmers already produce, as colleagues in the room will already know, about 60% of the food that we eat, and I recognise and support your desire to do more. And indeed, since my first week in the job I’ve been out and about on your farms listening to how I can best support you.
Based on what I’ve heard, I want to bring a clearer focus on enabling food production in our environmental land management schemes, because food production can and should go hand in hand with preserving the diversity and abundance of nature.
So today, as well as updating on prices in our environmental land management schemes with an average 10% uplift to unlock more money for these schemes; and giving more choice about what you can do with more SFI actions made available to better reflect the full spectrum of farming interests; I also want to build more trust between us. Because the feedback I have received suggests too often farmers feel the regulatory bodies start from a position of suspicion rather than one of trust.
Firstly, I want to respond to the important feedback many of you have provided to make sure it better pays to run a farming business by making the biggest upgrade to our farming scheme since Brexit gave us the freedom to redesign how we support agriculture. So today I’m delighted to announce new improvements to our incentives. We will pay you more for taking part in our environmental and management schemes. On average, this is an increase in rates by 10%, making it more attractive for you to get involved.
Those already in schemes will automatically benefit from this uplift. And in addition, if you have a plan to pull things together in a way that makes a significant difference, you will be paid a premium for that as well. And further details are being published today. We’ll also introduce more schemes to support environmental action that underpins profits for food production by supporting SFI actions that promote healthy soil, increased pollinators and precision farming.
We are making SFI simpler, including more suitable for tenant farms, with three year agreements taking on board the recommendations from Baroness rock. We have been consistently clear as a government that we will not compromise on food safety. British farmers are rightly proud of producing food that meets and often exceeds our world leading animal welfare and environmental standards. And British consumers want to buy this top-quality food. But too often products produced to lower welfare standards overseas aren’t clearly labelled to differentiate them. This is why I’m pleased to announce that we will rapidly consult on clearer labelling so we can tackle the unfairness created by misleading labelling and protect farmers and consumers.
This will explore how we can better highlight imports that do not meet UK welfare standards, improve how origin information is given online, and look at how we can do even more to ensure promotional activity such as Union Jack labels on supermarket displays matches the products on the shelf. For example, this rapid consultation will address concerns such as the pork reared to lower welfare standards overseas, which is then processed in the UK and presented in supermarkets to shoppers as British. And this will include bringing lightly processed meats into the same level of labelling as unprocessed pork, and beef.
We will also explore whether existing country of origin labelling rules can be strengthened by mandating how and where origin information is displayed. For example, on the front of packs, meaning farmers are fairly rewarded for meeting and often exceeding high UK welfare standards. And indeed, this reflects the lessons from labelling on eggs, where informed consumer choice has driven changes in consumer purchasing with the number of free-range eggs more than doubling. The hard work and dedication of farmers, fishers and food producers makes this country competitive globally – the English sparkling wine, the Scottish smoked salmon and whiskey, the Welsh lamb, the Northern Ireland beef. And it all gets a massive vote of confidence from consumers around the world to the tune, in fact, of around 24 billion in exports for the British economy.
So, I am delighted that from the start of this year all geographical indication products made and sold in Great Britain will be using our UK GI logo, which protects the geographical names of food and drink. UK producers will also be able to use this logo on products sold abroad, which will help even more of your product stand out from the crowd both at home and overseas.
And we have also recruited agri-food attaches linked to our embassy network to open up more markets in line with the commitments we gave at the farm to fork Summit. These attaches have already opened up new markets such as poultry to Tunisia and pork to Chile. I also want the public sector to procure more high quality, sustainable food produced by you, and Parliament has in fact recently passed legislation following our exit from the European Union which enables a greater emphasis on the public benefits of this public sector procurement.
We will also update the government buying standards for food and catering to emphasise the importance of buying food with high environmental and welfare standards, which will play to the strengths of our food producers. Now, improving productivity is also key to boosting food production. And we have world leading agri-tech innovators here in the UK. Having listened to farmers, I am keen to focus more on technology that can be bought now as opposed to prioritising early stage research. Later this month, I will be inviting farmers to apply for share of an initial £15 million for innovations, like robotic mechanical weeding technology, that can be implemented right away. And more grants will be launched this year to help you grow more, sell more and make your businesses more sustainable and resilient for the future.
Now I know that even with these grants, some farmers still find it hard to find the capital to make use of the grants that are available. So we will also look at ways to make them even easier to access. And to attract the ambitious and diverse future workforce that we need we will continue to support the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture. And this is all part of how we are ensuring we meet our commitment to invest every pound of the full farming budget.
Next, I want to give farming businesses more choice. So today I’m pleased to announce around 50 new actions are being added to our environmental land management schemes, many of which support food production, for farmers to choose what is right for them whether you farm on grassland, moorland, or riverbanks, making it easier for our support to fit into your business plans. These new actions embrace innovations from soil health to precision farming, to robotics. And they also recognise that there is scope to streamline the application process for schemes. And we have already started to put that into practice. So now you can apply for the sustainable farming incentive and the countryside stewardship mid tier together through one single application, meaning you’ll have the same actions and can have the same ambition just with less paperwork. And I’m keen to work with you to streamline paperwork further. Part of offering more choice is also about improving permitted development rights. And that’s why I’m working with government colleagues following the recent consultation and exploring how we can reduce the barriers faced by farm development projects that have become all too familiar in the conversations I’ve been having with farmers.
What I’ve also heard frequently from farmers is that you feel the starting point for too many interactions with regulatory bodies is one way you are treated with suspicion and not trust. In my experience, no one cares more about the land, the nature around them, or the passing of their farm to future generations in good health than the farmers who are the custodians of that land. So the relationship from government and regulatory bodies should better reflect this. As Secretary of State I have asked officials to work as a priority with the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency to review the interactions between you and their staff. As the report a few weeks ago from David Fursdon showed regarding Natural England, there are lessons to be learned in the relationship with those who manage and care for the land which I am keen to ensure are heeded.
Lastly, in respect of TB, I want to recognise the terrible toll this takes on those who raise cattle. In contrast to Wales, our policy in England has worked in reducing cases and we remain focused on eradication. Informed by the science and the advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer, our approach has included culling options, and we will continue with that going forward.
So to conclude, I recognise for a successful farming sector, we need to support food production and improve farm productivity. That is why today I’m increasing the SFI payment rates on average by 10%, expanding the SFI actions and committing to build on the streamlining of applications. I look forward to working with you on a rapid consultation on labelling to better reflect the high standards of British farmers and empower consumers, leverage public sector procurement and expand our export potential. And I want to ensure government and regulatory bodies are more responsive to your diverse needs. Reflecting that you are the custodians of the land that you care for. More money, more choice, more trust. That is my approach to putting farmers at the heart of government policy, working with you to promote food production as part of a shared commitment. to economic growth. Thank you very much.
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