Global Agriculture

Environment Secretary speech at Farmers Weekly Transition Live Event

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At the Farmers Weekly Transition Live Event, Environment Secretary Steve Barclay gave a speech outlining the support available from government for farmers

11 May 2024, UK: Well, thanks very much. Good afternoon, and it’s great to organise this on home turf, as a Cambridgeshire MP. I’m very conscious we meet on a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the ice cream van has arrived outside.

But I think what’s very much on many minds at the moment is the extremely challenging wet weather that we have seen in recent months.

Just to put that in a bit of context, we’ve seen 60% above average rainfall, if you take that compared to say a decade ago, this is the second wettest winter that we have on record and therefore what’s very much shaping my, Mark Spencer and the ministerial team in Defra is a recognition of just how challenging that landscape is.  

And so, whilst I think the focus from Farmers Weekly and today’s event is absolutely right on transition and how we build that sustainable agriculture, a lot of those benefits are for the longer term.

By their nature, where you do environmental schemes, where you do nature recovery schemes they have a long lead time. If you’re looking at things like soil quality. If you’re looking at improving our number of pollinators. These are long term transitions, and I’m very acutely aware of the immediate challenges that I’m sure are in the minds of many in the room given the flooding just near me in Lincolnshire that we have seen 

So, I just wanted to start by addressing that. And there’s a number of things that we’re doing.

So firstly, we moved quickly in response with the Farming Recovery Fund, getting that announcement out quickly. That gave us grants of up to £25,000 for uninsured losses. We listened actively to the feedback on things like 150 metre rule, so we got that changed. We responded with announcements such as the Prime Minister at the NFU conference, with the £75 million in grants for drainage boards. 

As someone who represents a farming constituency in Northeast Cambridgeshire in the middle of the Fens, I’m acutely aware having been a constituency MP for the last 14 years of just how central drainage boards are in certain parts of the country, and so £75 million targeted at infrastructure modernisation, which needs to happen.  

There are longer term things we’re doing. So, we’ve doubled the flood defences – £5.6bn over 6 years which is broadly double what it was in the previous six years. That has protected over 900,000 acres of farmland. But again, we can see with the winter we’ve had, just how challenging that is for many other areas still. So, there’s a lot that we’re doing, but within that, clearly there are still current pressures. And the first thing I really wanted to say to this farming audience is we are very much actively listening and reviewing what we can do in our response to that. And I will come on to that.  

We’ve got the Farm to Fork Summit chaired by the Prime Minister next week, which is part of us looking and engaging with farming leaders in terms of recognising those very real current challenges and certainly for my part being in the cabinet, and also as a constituency MP, I’m very clear that those changes are all too real. 

And so, on that point, firstly just to say that we will provide flexibility and delegations in our agri-environment schemes. So, we’re looking at in the context of SFI… farmers that have been unable to carry out their scheme requirements due to wet weather will not miss out and can still receive payments. So, we will set out more details of that at the Farm to Fork Summit.  

Also, I plan to extend the Farming Recovery Fund to support farmers significantly impacted by water on their land this winter, and it’s important we do take time to get this right. So, our systems are ready, and we are directing support to where it is needed most. But that is why we are talking to stakeholders and we will provide more details on that, hopefully later this month. But we very much recognise that there is an issue that we need to engage on. 

As part of that, a huge credit to Farmers Weekly for the role that it has played both in helping inform, helping communicate the issues around the transition that we’re seeing in agriculture at the moment, keeping farmers abreast of those developments and also for the focus of today’s discussion, which I think is extremely well timed and is all part of us ensuring that we have a successful transition in terms of building greater profitability on farms, but also greater resilience. 

And as I come on to some of the immediate things that we’re doing, I wanted just to put that in a bit of longer-term context.

So, within the November 2020 Agricultural Transition Plan, the focus in that was about sustainability in our food production. That was a central theme of our plan and I think we should be candid with each other about the previous situation we had.  

The EU scheme saw 50% of the money going to 10% of the farmers. It was a bureaucratic scheme; it wasn’t the scheme that drove environmental improvements. It wasn’t the scheme that was bespoke to our national needs. By its nature, it was a scheme that looked to many others. And so, the opportunity we have through this transition is to really target our support in ways that boost both the environment but specifically boost food production and food security.  

And as Minnette Batters said at the NFU conference, they are two sides of the same coin. Often, it’s almost portrayed as two rival camps. The environment over here, and food production over there.

But when it comes to things like our soil quality, actually targeting our environmental support in ways that enhance our food production is all part of that long term transition and building a more resilient and sustainable agricultural sector. For my part, since arriving in my post in November, what I’ve tried to do is re-emphasise our productivity grants more specifically to food production and food security.  

And there’s a number of reasons for that. When I was in the Treasury, I was acutely aware that food security is national security, value for money at a time when national crisis changes.  And therefore, I think it is important we focus on food security.  

But one of the impediments, there is a tendency sometimes in government to think the announcement of a grant is the delivery. And what I noticed on the food production side was often we were announcing grants where the upper limit was 40% for logical reasons. On behalf of the taxpayer, you want to ensure there is value for money. Therefore, if the farm gets the benefit, you do not want the taxpayer to pay the whole amount, so we were contributing up to 40%. But because of the volatility within farming, and because of some of the constraints and access to capital, quite often those grants were not being taken out, they were not being as effective as they needed to be.  

And if you look in contrast to our environmental grants we offered up to 100% because from a tax point of view, there was an environmental benefit.  

My key shift that I’ve tried to deliver as Secretary of State is to sort of reemphasise our environmental grants much more on to things that are both good for the environment using less pesticide but also good for food production lowering more costs.  

To give you an example, because I think sometimes in politics people come out with phrases and you think well where is the evidence? Where is the proof? Show me an example.  

If I take the River Wye. Quite often, people would respond to that by saying there is too much chicken production. There is too much chicken litter producing phosphate into our rivers. We need to reduce the amount of farming that happens.

My approach is to target our environmental grants with 35 million targeted to support anaerobic digestion on the Wye. So then that chicken litter can be burnt, producing energy, producing fertiliser if you separate it out of phosphate. So actually, you safeguard your chicken production, but you do so in a way that is good for the environment and as a result  we can offer 70% as a contribution, not 40%.

What we are doing is taking those environmental schemes and looking at how we focus them in ways that better align with my priority of food production and food security.  

And that isn’t by lowering environmental standards but by dealing with our waste, enhancing our water quality, dealing with our soil quality, dealing with our pollinators. These are ways we can enhance the environment, but we can also do that in a way that is good for our food security.  

And then looking to do that much more through the farming community because I’m also acutely aware that 72% of our land is farmland and I again as a constituency MP have always felt very strongly with my engagement with my farmers that no one cares more about  passing on their land to the next generation, who cares about the nature on their farm than the people who are actually out there farming it! That is why I’m very keen that with these environmental schemes that we are trusting our farmers, we’re looking at our ALB relationship with our farmers. We trust them, we direct the grants, we look at the access to capital constraint and we do that in a way that supports food production. but also brings benefits from an environmental point of view. And that’s a key sort of reengineering that we have done.     

And first of all, a statistic that you won’t often hear. That actually we are making progress on that. The Sustainable Farming Incentive now has over 20,000 successful applications. What you don’t always hear is it is the most successful scheme that Defra has ever done. It’s had more participation than any other scheme that the department has run.

That’s not to say that as part of this transition that there aren’t things we won’t tweak along the way. Through the work that Janet Hughes and the team, a lot of tweaks have been done about how we sort of refocus some of those payments but that is something that we’re extremely keen to do is to ensure the take up of actions continues where we can see that there is progress being made.  

And again perhaps as a proof of point on that, that is why at the Oxford Farming Conference we increased the average payment under SFI by 10%, that is why we added 50 additional actions. We have actions on moorland and grassland, we have actions, having spoken to Kate Rock, in fact when I was in No.10, I helped commission the Rock Review, recognising that it wasn’t working for tenant farmers as it should so bringing it from the seven years to the three years in terms of the length of agreements, looking at the outcome of the Rock Review.  

Another bit of feedback from sessions like this I got was the risk of people taking from and out of production entirely to go into environmental schemes. Now, to be frank, the data didn’t really support that so when I got that message at many sessions from people I go back to my department and say that this is a big concern. But they say “don’t worry about it minister the data doesn’t support this”, but the perception was clearly there.

In response to that we put in the 25% cap so that we don’t see that distorting effect where if there is a concern that people have of too much farmland is being taken out because there’s less volatility with some of the environmental schemes then we get a better balance. 

And again that’s sort of for the environment too because often putting in 100% of land into these schemes was not in itself an environmental solution either. Again, that’s an example of coming to sessions like this feeding back, coming forward putting that 25% limit on, so that if there is a risk of that, that people are concerned about then, we’re ensuring that that does not happen. 

Moving forward, the other thing that has often been raised with me is around the red tape. If you’ve been out on the farm all day, having to come and do a load of forms, so again, we’re looking at working with the sector on how we streamline, how we simplify, so a single application process for SFI and Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier is one of the things we’re keen to introduce.  

We’re looking at how we improve the guidance. We’re looking at how we change the culture within the arms-length bodies from one where I feel in the past there’s been almost an air of suspicion, to one which should be based more on trust.

To give you a practical example of that, I’ve said there should be no unannounced farm inspections. There should be 48 hours notice, because the purpose should be to advise and help people do the right thing, not to try and go there and catch someone out who’s busy trying to juggle lots of other things as well. We’re looking at how we create a more engaged, supportive environment. 

And then there are the mental health challenges and the pressure, particularly from the wet weather, that many people have been feeling. How do we ensure that those arms-length bodies are thinking about the pressures that people are under and having an approach that is supportive rather than one that is trying to catch people out? That’s been a key issue that we’re trying to address. 

Sometimes I come to these sessions and people ask about the next generation and how can we make farming attractive to the next generation.

Our focus there is particularly around £427 million in grants that the Prime Minister announced at the NFU Conference around automation. That is good for productivity. It’s good for our resilience. It also changes some of the opportunities and employment opportunities that are within the rural economy in a way that is very attractive to future generations.

You can drive farm productivity to reduce our import costs to better manage our water, to reduce our energy costs or our solar battery grants, on-farm reservoirs, our slurry grants, our investment in sprayers and equipment. These are all things that build a more resilient more productive sector and that’s what the £427 million in grants is focused on. 

And then finally, while to me there’s much more we can and should be doing on automation (and an area like pack houses is one that we’re going to particularly focus on) there is a recognition that there are limits to what can be done with automation, there’s certain parts of agriculture where that is less ready-to-go than others.

Today we’re announcing our response to John Shropshire’s report – John being very highly respected farmer just down the road – so we recognise that automation is not a quick fix, but we will be extending the seasonal worker visa schemes of 43,000.

Making the commitment for the next five years in terms of the 43,000 for horticulture, 2,000 for poultry to ensure that businesses in the supply chain have the workforce they need to succeed in this transition. 

But what we’re also then doing is looking at how automation can then play into that and we’re going to start, as I say, looking at what support we can do through areas like packhouses.  

And then the final thing I really wanted to emphasise is I’m very keen that we use our freedoms in ways that support the agricultural sector, so let me give you a couple of quick examples.

First through our legislation, had we been in the EU, we would not be able to deliver the gene-editing legislation that is a huge opportunity to develop more disease resistant drought resistant crops, which again is good for the environment: it needs less spraying. That is something we’ve passed legislation on that is a key opportunity we should embrace.  

We have control now over our public sector procurement in a way that we didn’t before when we were subject to EU procurement rules.

We’ve got the Quince Review looking at how we better utilise that spend in our hospitals, our schools, our armed forces to better reflect the high quality of being British produce, so the Quince Review is looking at that. Mark Spencer, who will be known to many in the room, is a farmer himself. As farming Minister, he’s working through the supply chains, looking at the balance in terms of the supermarkets, where there are often concerns raised, and Mark is working through that. 

We also have a rapid review of labelling, but there’s a concern about empowering the consumer, and I don’t believe it’s empowering the consumer if they buy British bacon thinking it’s being reared here when actually it’s being reared overseas but packaged in England but it’s not actually British, so we’re looking at our labelling and how we strengthen that. 

In conclusion, a lot of the benefits in terms of the environment and nature take time and that is the very element of transition. 

But it gives us a huge opportunity to design what works for us. I think in designing things that are good for the environment and meet our legislative commitments, we can do that in ways that boost yield and better farm water management. Look at our unit costs, look at our automation, look at how we use our common sense with procurement and labelling, and in terms of our supply chain and our sales. And we can do that in a way that boosts profitability and ultimately creates a sector that is attractive for the next generation to come into.  

That all requires us all to navigate, in the short term, the wet weather and other challenges.

The Farm to Fork Summit next week, which is now an annual event, or the commitment to the Food Security Index that the Prime Minister has made, hopefully gives you an indication that we are keen to work with you.

You’re managing that short term, but within a clear plan that we have for the longer-term transition in a way that is good for food security but is also good for the environment.

Also Read: Crystal Crop Protection Limited Launches Scholarship Program for Female Students in Agriculture Studies

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