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Nick Herbert: The Conservative agenda for farming

Thank you very much ladies and gentleman for inviting me to speak at your annual conference for a second time.

After I'd spoken last year, I told Peter that the stage lights were the brightest I'd ever encountered - so much so that I couldn't see any of you, even in the front row.

He seemed remarkably unconcerned.

I realise now that the purpose of these gatherings isn't to listen to politicians - it's to interrogate us.

But I would like to pay tribute to the NFU for the skill and vigour with which you represent farmers across the country.

I agree with most of your document 'Why Farming Matters'.

Because it does.

And my primary goal, if we form the next government, will be to lead a department which understands that farming matters, too.

A department whose mission is to promote a successful British agriculture.

And a department which is competent to deliver.

I'm sure you all remember my friend and colleague Nicholas Soames from his period as Minister of Food.

Was an MP ever better suited to a job?

Last December, Nicholas received a letter from Hilary Benn, inviting him to attend the Defra Christmas market.

Only the letter arrived on the day of the event.

I suspect that won't surprise you from the department that runs the Rural Payments Agency.

The Honourable Member for Mid Sussex despatched an e-mail exocet to the Secretary of State.

"What is the point," he thundered, "of sending out an invitation with no notice?  Get your people to buck up."

Hilary wrote back - two months later.

He said: "I apologise for the long delay in replying, which was due to an administrative error."

You couldn't make it up.

I want to set out what I believe will be the four key trends affecting agriculture over the years ahead.

And how, together, we should respond to those trends to ensure a thriving industry.

Two of these trends are broadly positive.

Two are more challenging.

But all have to be recognised, and all confronted.

<h2>1. Food security</h2>

The first key trend is strongly positive for farming - albeit that it also reveals a serious challenge to us all.

Food security is on the agenda.

Everyone is talking about the need to produce more food.

Global demand is projected to double in just four decades' time.

Even this Government, which for a decade told us that domestic production didn't matter, on the grounds that we could just as well import food from abroad, has repented.

After decades when farming was seen as the problem, it is once again being seen - rightly - as the solution.

The industry that will feed the world.

So, as I said to the Oxford Farming Conference, we enter a new age of agriculture.

One where farming matters again.

I visited Washington last week and met the American Farmland Trust.

They gave me a bumper sticker on which are written just four words:

'No Farms, No Food.'

Nine years ago, the Government could get away with creating a new department which didn't even have the word agriculture or farming in its title.

Not any more.

It's time to put the 'f - farming' back into Defra.

To give the department a new focus and a new mission.

To spell out the value of farming to the whole nation.

And to promote a policy agenda which backs agriculture rather than burdens agriculture.

<h2>2. Fiscal challenge</h2>

The second key trend represents a real challenge.

It's about money.

Western governments, deeply affected by recession, are tightening their belts.

And reckless management of this country's finances has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy.

Whichever government comes to power after the next election is going to have to deal with the deficit, and learn to live within its means.

Whichever government comes to power will have to cut Defra's budget.

Europe's leaders and finance ministers will look to cut the costs of the EU budget, and the CAP can't be exempt.

In one sense, Britain's farmers will be protected from the full force of the recession.

The budget for the CAP will be intact until 2013.

Whoever is in power will still be spending billions of pounds a year, both through the CAP and through Defra, to support agriculture.

No other industry will be in that position.

But the Single Farm Payment can't last forever - although I think it will survive after 2013 in some form.

And we can't go back to the days of price support or intervention that distorted the market.

So British farming will need to continue to adjust to the new world.

No government is going to be writing larger cheques to farming over the years ahead.

And government itself is going to have to be leaner and more efficient.

We can't afford the competing armies of rural bureaucrats that have been recruited under Labour.

We can't afford three inquiries into the uplands, one by the Commission for Rural Communities, one by Natural England, and one by Defra.

There are 8,000 civil servants working for Defra

But there are now 28,000 officials working in the 67 quangos under Defra.

We can't go on like this.

And we can't afford to waste taxpayers' money on fines to the European Union.

The Rural Payments Agency has been a shambles and a disgrace.

Administrative incompetence has costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

It has made farmers' lives a misery.

And yet no minister has ever accepted responsibility for what has happened.

The independent National Audit Office has criticised the "... lack of senior management ownership of the scheme in the Agency and DEFRA".

It's time for a fundamental shake-up.

So today I'm announcing that, under a Conservative Government, the Chairman of the Rural Payments Agency Board will be the farming minister.

His job will be to get a grip of the Agency and make sure it delivers.

And you will all know where the buck stops.

I don't want Jim Paice to start hurling staplers or bullying staff.

But we're in a new political climate, where ministers can't expect to side-step responsibility.

And we won't.

To support ministers in ensuring that Defra delivers, we'll set up a board to hold the department to account.

We'll appoint senior non-executive directors with serious business experience.

Driving greater efficiency and value for money aren't optional extras when we need to deliver - in David Cameron's words - more from less.

And we're determined to improve the department's performance.

<h2>3. Environmental challenge</h2>

Just as we have to live within our economic means, so we have to live within our environmental means.

And growing environmental concern is the third key trend which we all face.

To those who say that farming and the environment are in competition ...

... that the choice is between increasing production or conserving the natural world ...

... I say, that notion is profoundly wrong.

Farming and conservation cannot, must not be alternatives.

They must go together.

We must increase production on a sustainable basis.

We can't deplete natural resources or usher in a period of unsustainable intensification.

Our food security will be safeguarded not only by the skill of our farmers but by the health of our soils, water and biodiversity.

Harming the environment would harm farming.

In the years ahead, subsidy will increasingly be directed towards securing public goods which the market cannot support.

Indeed, in the long-run, that is the only justification for taxpayer support.

So environmental goods and services will become an increasingly important source of revenue for farms.

We'll need to build on agri-environment schemes and ensure that they deliver more.

And we'll need to take sensible steps to reduce the carbon emissions from agriculture.

I'm not talking about ill-judged calls to cut livestock numbers or tell people to stop eating meat ...

... demands which not only damage farming, but also undermine the vital cause of tackling dangerous climate change.

I notice that certain pop stars have travelled to Brussels to support 'Meat Free Mondays'.

But since the paddy fields of Asia emit more methane than their livestock, can we expect brave celebrity pilgrimage to Beijing to demand 'Rice Free Tuesdays'?

We need a debate which is led by science and reason ...

... not emotion or fad ...

... where agriculture and the environment are seen to be in partnership, not in conflict.

<h2>4. Growing interest in food</h2>

The fourth key trend is related to environmental issues, and it's a positive one for agriculture.

Consumer interest in food, and where food comes from, continues to grow.

With films like Food Inc blowing a chill wind across the Atlantic, campaigning against factory farming in the United States, it's easy to see this concern about food as a threat.

But the growing appetite for local food is in fact a huge opportunity.

So is a preference for British produce.

And government can help by demanding honest labelling of food, so that consumers can exercise real choice.

Because the consumer must be king.

<h2>An agenda for agriculture</h2>

Last November, Jim Paice and I travelled to New Zealand to see the challenges facing farming on the far side of the world.

When we visited one farm, on the Canterbury Plain on the South Island, I was astonished to discover that the settlement was called 'Arundel'.

I greeted the farmer and explained that I was the MP for Arundel.

'Where?' he asked.  I repeated: Arundel.

'No mate', he said. 'It's A-RUN-del'.

Well, I said, I didn't think it was, because I lived on the river Arun.

He responded: 'How do you know it's not the river A-RUN?"

Farmers have an answer for everything.

On this farm, the son and his young wife had taken over the business from the father.  They were carefully improving their herd, in consultation with their buyer.

And do you know who that buyer was?  Waitrose.

12,000 miles away, that farmer was getting closer to the market.

We live in a global market place.

And we've got to be competitive.

We can't put up the barriers.

Since the abolition of the corn laws, Britain has believed in, and prospered through, free trade.

There is no future in protectionism.  In the end, it impoverishes us all.

But government has a role:

- To ensure that the market is free and fair - with no EU Member State providing underhand subsidy for its farmers.

- To ensure that the playing field is level - so we should press for the EU's animal welfare standards to be brought up to our own, and for global production standards in WTO negotiations.

- And, crucially, to ensure that government is helping the industry to compete, not hindering it.

<h2>Our Agenda for British Farming</h2>

So today, we're publishing 'A New Age of Agriculture - the Conservative Agenda for British Farming.'

Our agenda isn't like the Government's 'Food 2030'.

It's not a vague 20-year-old plan - however laudable - or an airy-fairy vision.

It's a set of practical, deliverable policies to back British farming.

That's because it's been written by a practical man who knows and cares about farming.

I'd like to pay tribute to Jim Paice.

I couldn't wish for a better colleague, or one who works harder for the agricultural industry.

I trust Jim to do his best for the British farmer.

And our agenda sets out how we'll go about it.

You can all collect copies of the document on the way out.

But let me draw attention to some key pledges.

<h2>Tackling regulation</h2>

First, we've got to do something about the burden of regulation on farming.

There are too many officials running around the countryside telling farmers what to do.

And there are too many forms for farmers to fill in.

We need to tackle the regulation at source ...

... engaging actively and early in the EU to ensure that regulations don't damage our interests

... and that they're subject to proper cost-benefit analysis.

... which too often they simply are not - take the pesticides directive.

I've always stood against the transfer of too much power to the EU.

But whatever our views about deeper European integration, we must ensure that we protect British interests through active and constructive engagement in the EU.

Defra, dealing with environmental and agricultural policy, is a particularly EU-facing ministry.

So strong and effective representation in Brussels, at both political and official levels, will be a priority for us if we're running the department.

I'd want Ministers to spend time in Europe ...

... Building alliances ...

... Promoting our interests.

The truth is that, despite all its pro-European claims, the Government hasn't engaged when it should have done.

They said no to the electronic tagging of sheep too late ... and only after they'd first said yes.

Last year, Hilary Benn told this conference that he wanted to 'stamp out' misleading labelling ... but then we discovered that his officials had actually opposed compulsory labelling schemes in the EU.

We need a government that says what it means, and means what it says.

And we mean to stop the gold-plating of EU regulation.

We mean to be more interested in outcomes on the farm and interfere less in the process.

Because bureaucrats shouldn't be telling farmers how to farm.

And we mean to reduce the number of on-farm inspections.

Government has got to stop treating every farmer as a criminal.

When I was speaking to the Dorset NFU last year, I had the idea of placing a special table in the Secretary of State's office, and asking that every form that lands on a farmers' desk should be copied onto it.

So that Ministers know, day by day, exactly what farmers are being asked to do by the department.

As someone quipped, it would have to be a large table.

But we're serious about reducing the red tape that ties up Britain's farmers.

So, if we win the election, within three months of taking office we will commission an industry-led review of all existing regulation ...

... to reduce burdens without compromising standards.

<h2>Ensuring animal health</h2>

Second, just as we want to work with you to identify unnecessary red tape, so we want to work with you to ensure animal health.

Disease outbreaks over the past decade have crippled farming and cost the country billions of pounds.

Many of them were triggered or exacerbated by Government incompetence.

I believe that sharing the responsibility and cost of tackling animal disease with the farming industry is right in principle and could deliver public benefits.

But farmers who are being asked to contribute to the costs can fairly ask that they have a say, too.

And it ill-behoves a Government to demand that farmers pay more when Ministers refuse to take the action needed to protect the industry.

We can no longer stand by while bovine TB claims 40,000 cattle a year, costs £80 million a year, and destroys farmers' livelihoods every year.

We can't wait to see if a vaccine works.

The truth is that Ministers have twisted the science and funked the tough decision which is needed to tackle the problem.

But we won't.  We'll be led by the science, and introduce carefully-managed control of badgers in high TB areas, as part of a package of measures to deal with the disease.

It'll be a tough decision, but that is what being in government should be about: showing leadership and doing what's right, even if it is unpopular.

And this action is the only way to ensure healthy badgers living alongside healthy cattle, which is what we all want to see.

<h2>Science and skills</h2>

Third, we must recognise the importance of science to our future.

Research and development will be crucial to help the industry raise production in harmony with the environment.

So I have asked Lord Taylor on my team to lead a review of agricultural science and skills policy and delivery.

John does a marvellous job for us on the frontbench, often unseen.

He brings the experience of a grower in Lincolnshire and the wisdom of a member of the House of Lords.

We must uphold our world-class science base ...
... share expertise with international partners ...

... and work to ensure that 'blue skies' research is effectively translated into practical value on the farm.

So we will prioritise R&D within the departmental budget ...

... develop a long term strategic research agenda across the whole food chain which reflects the importance of increasing production sustainably ...

... and we'll ensure that our farmers and growers are equipped with the skills they need.

Because one of the tests of the industry's success will be whether we can attract good young people into farming ...

... give them the skills, knowledge and support they need to succeed ...

... and equip the next generation to lead a new agricultural revolution.


I'm optimistic about the future of farming.

I think there are good years ahead.

I know that there have been serious setbacks over the past decade.

Foot and Mouth. Bluetongue.  Real difficulties in the dairy sector and hardship in the uplands.

And that farming still faces tough challenges.

Price fluctuations.

Further reform of the CAP. 

Adjustment as farming moves closer to the market.

And inevitably there will be times when the next government won't be popular with farmers.

But I want you to know where a Conservative government's heart would be.

We care about British farming and we want you to prosper.

And we've shown that we're serious about backing British agriculture.

At this conference a year ago, I launched the Honest Food campaign which successfully persuaded the supermarkets to re-label their produce.

When I visited the West Country, I listened and made clear that we wouldn't shrink from dealing with Bovine TB.

At the Royal Show, I announced 'Rural Action', a programme to respect and re-vitalise rural communities, by returning power.

At our Party Conference, I pledged that a Conservative Government would drive the sustainable procurement of food throughout the public sector, deploying that £2 billion a year of public spend to support local producers.

At the Oxford Farming Conference, I announced a Supermarket Ombudsman - prompting the Government to follow with its policy announcement the next week.

And today, I have one further announcement.

Our farmland is a national resource for future generations.  But under Labour, the protection of the best land has been downgraded.

And the Government has rejected calls by some councils to keep in place local protection of this valuable asset.

If we understand the value of farming, we can't build on the best land.

So we will introduce into our national planning framework rules preventing the development of grades 1 and 2 agricultural land in all but exceptional circumstances.

That is more than a fifth of the farmland in England.

And this new protection for farmland will be a symbol of the new age of agriculture.

An age where food production will be an international priority.

An age where the public will know more about food and where it comes from.

An age when agriculture is valued as a primary industry.

An age where government says, loudly and clearly, that farming matters again.

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