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Rural Britain's future is at risk after 'sell out' trade deal with New Zealand

Farmers' leaders have accused the Government of ‘questionable economic literacy’ and endangering Britain’s ‘treasured countryside’ by signing a trade deal with New Zealand last week.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the International Trade Secretary, described the deal as a ‘win-win for two like-minded democracies who believe in free and fair trade’ and ‘a vital part of our plan to level up the country’, after Britain agreed to phase out quotas on New Zealand lamb, beef and dairy imports.

In return, New Zealand will cut tariffs on a range of UK goods including clothing, footwear, buses, ships and bulldozers.

The deal – which follows last month’s agreement with Australia – has infuriated UK farmers, who fear the market being flooded with New Zealand meat, which is cheaper to produce.

Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, says ‘our iconic countryside, an incredible patchwork of stone walls, hedges, flower meadows, rolling fields of wheat and barley, is at a crossroads.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the International Trade Secretary, described the deal as a ‘win-win for two like-minded democracies who believe in free and fair trade’

‘The future of farming and food lies in political hands and the decisions made now will be far-reaching and have huge consequences for us all.’

Ms Batters adds: ‘Farmers underpin the very fabric of the country and the precious environment that they’ve committed so much to. Remove farmers from the land and environmental degradation will be all that follows.

‘The current actions of this Government indicate a level of questionable economic literacy towards the future of our treasured countryside.

‘I can only think they are blind to the damage they’ll be presiding over or, even worse, they’re actively pursuing a policy of cold-blooded attrition of the land. I hope my biggest fear is unfounded.

‘Failure to maintain and grow our food self-sufficiency will drive our farmers from the land.’

This newspaper has highlighted the risks to the country’s £10 billion agricultural industry in our Save Our Family Farms campaign, highlighting fears that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would ‘swap Brussels for Brisbane’ by opening up British markets to farmers Down Under.

Even before the deal was signed, the UK imported 32,368 tons of lamb from New Zealand in the year to August 2020, at a value of £120 million. In stark contrast, according to data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the UK exported just 627 tons to New Zealand in the same period – all of it frozen – at a value of just £1.2 million to British farmers.

The gap between the ‘farm gate’ price – the cost of the product available at the farm, excluding any transport costs – between the UK and New Zealand means Kiwi lamb is about 50p cheaper per kilogram than British lamb.

However, this can rise to as much as £2 a kilogram as New Zealand is one of the world’s largest exporters of lamb so its prices remain relatively stable, while the cost of our home-grown lamb varies considerably by season. This means that for much of the year it could be more attractive for supermarkets and restaurants to import New Zealand lamb than it would be to buy more expensive British meat.

The difference can be explained by the sheer scale of the operations.

The average size of a farm in New Zealand is a massive 270 hectares, compared with 87 hectares in England.

The New Zealand lamb market needs to feed just five million people domestically, while the UK lamb market needs to feed more than 65 million. There are 26 million sheep in New Zealand, a sheep-to-people ratio of 5 to 1. In contrast there are 32 million sheep in the UK, a ratio of 1:2.

All the odds are stacked against UK farmers so it’s time for Ministers to champion us – rather than patronise us, writes National Farmers' Union President MINETTE BATTERS

By National Farmers' Union President Minette Batters for the Mail on Sunday 

As a farmer and president of the NFU, representing 55,000 farming businesses, all I’ve ever wanted is for global Britain to strike trade deals that are fair for farmers and fair to the British public; deals that fulfil the Government’s very strong commitment that our farmers won’t be undermined.

We know how much the public cares about this. Last year, more than a million people signed one of the biggest petitions the country has seen – demanding that British food standards are protected.

The Mail on Sunday’s Save Our Family Farms campaign has been vital in this fight and led the Government to introduce a legally binding commitment to produce a report on the impacts that trade deals will have on food and farming. There is no other sector that will allow MPs oversight and ultimately a say on free trade agreements.

But the future of rural Britain –our iconic countryside with its patchwork of stone walls, hedges, flower meadows, rolling fields of wheat and barley – is at a crossroads. Its fate – along with farming and food production – lies in political hands and the decisions made by Ministers will have far-reaching and huge consequences for us all.

Minette Batters (left), pictured with former International Trade Secretary Liz Truss (right), wants global Britain to strike trade deals that are fair for farmers and fair to the British public

I often hear talk in Government that farmers are no longer relevant to modern politics, too small a voice to matter.

What such wrong-headed views don’t factor in is that farmers underpin the very fabric of the country and the environment that politicians are so committed to protecting. Remove farmers and environmental degradation is inevitable.

Although food security and self-sufficiency are of critical national importance, the Government’s actions indicate a level of questionable economic literacy.

I can only think Ministers are blind to the damage they’ll be presiding over or, even worse, they’re actively pursuing a policy of cold-blooded attrition of the land. I hope my biggest fear is unfounded.

Failure to maintain food self-sufficiency would drive farmers from the land. For it is they who run businesses, food production and who care for the environment – and you can’t have one without the other.

So when I hear talk about setting 30 per cent of land aside for nature, my immediate question is what about the farmers? Who will look after the land, produce our food?

And what are we to do when Ministers tell businesses that they must increase costs with higher wages and abide by tougher regulations, while in the same breath ask us to cut costs to compete with the most efficient farmers in the world? These questions cause downward glances and as yet remain unanswered.

Success for all independent trading nations lies in partnership working. After many years, the New Zealanders and Australians have learned to spread their risk. They have small populations. They can farm at huge scale and are therefore serious exporters of agricultural commodities. Their production costs are much lower and they allow for a flexible global scheme on access to workers.

Their governments, too, are heavily invested in the technical expertise for opening up new markets and – interestingly – food prices in both countries are higher than the UK.

Such issues are not the only reason why the stakes for British farmers are exceptionally high.

Our Government is introducing new laws on animal sentience, animal welfare and the environment.

These are areas about which farmers care passionately. Our only ask is that other countries, with whom we are striking trade deals, do the same. But there is no sign of this happening.

Crucially, as with any business, British farmers would become uncompetitive if undercut by imported food produced in ways that would be illegal in this country.

I’m continually asked by Ministers to think positively. Quite frankly, that is deeply insulting to the farmers who I represent. If you are running a business which could fold because while you raise standards, at the same time your own Government welcomes imports produced with much lower standards, it is offensive to be told by politicians just to smile more. Our antipodean cousins have played a blinder in the negotiations for the trade deal agreed with Britain last week. New Zealand’s PM patted Boris Johnson on the back and used a rugby analogy to give her verdict on the deal: ‘The All Blacks won!’

Six years ago, the then Australian High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, told me: ‘You screwed us over when you joined the EU. We’ve been through hell and we’re coming back to get you.’

Minette Batters of the National Farmers' Union (left) said she often hears talk in Government that farmers are no longer relevant to modern politics, too small a voice to matter

How right he was. The UK has allowed a fully liberalised trade deal that the Australians never thought in their wildest dreams was possible.

I don’t doubt the pain that Australia had previously suffered – and I also don’t doubt the passion Australia had for ensuring its farmers got a great deal with the UK.

What farmers here – and the British public – need is the same willpower and ambition from our government.

Representatives of Australia’s High Commission in this country have been very busy here – hosting parties for Cabinet members and MPs – championing their great country. In view of this, I spoke to one of these Australian representatives at the recent Conservative Party conference and told them that my members needed equivalent action from our Government. They agreed.

I also asked if they thought Australia would have an animal sentience or welfare bill any time soon. The response was: ‘Never! We need to be globally competitive.’ That conversation vividly underlined to me how high the odds really are stacked against British farming.

As we stand at the crossroads of change, there are vital choices for our Government to take.

Those choices are simple. Do we want our farmers to have a future? Do we believe that we should have a thriving food producing industry? Do we want to support our farmers in their drive to go net zero by 2040? Or do we want to outsource our food production, abandon British farming to history and wave in food from anywhere in the world, regardless of the standards and conditions in which it is produced?

To secure our farmers’ future, requires strong, global leadership. I believe there are four things Britain needs from our Government to help get us on the right road.

1. Follow the lead of Australia and New Zealand by putting in place full-time trade ambassadors, or agricultural counsellors, to identify new countries to export to and open up these markets for our high quality food. Farmers should be invited to be part of trade delegations to underline the trust, traceability and standards of our food production.

2. In the legally binding food security report that the Government has to produce before the end of the year, the Government needs to use the current food self-sufficiency figure of 60 per cent as a metric for success. The fact is that if food production levels drop too low, our farming industry will become unviable.

3. Ensure we have a planned approach to accessing a workforce for our farms and food processing industry when they’re needed. And thus make sure we never again face the same crisis of slaughtering healthy pigs simply because of a shortage of abattoir workers.

4. Work with the British farming sector to be world leaders in climate-smart farming. Our farmers want to lead the world, using new, sustainable farming policies.

Never has there been a more pressing time for Britain to show global leadership in sustainable, quality food production.

The Government has the opportunity to win a global gold for this at COP26. The alternative is the huge risk that in future years we will look back and realise – to paraphrase Churchill – that never have we lost so much for so little…

Buy British! Jeremy Clarkson's new TV series contractor KALEB COOPER makes an SOS appeal to politicians as the spectre of more cheap foreign meat imports hangs over the industry

By Kaleb Cooper for the Mail on Sunday 

Jeremy Clarkson has done more for British farming in one TV series than the BBC's Countryfile has managed in 30 years of broadcasting, according to the Cumbrian sheep farmer James Rebanks.

And I know exactly what he means.

Because you might have seen me alongside the former Grand Tour and Top Gear presenter in episodes of Clarkson's Farm. 

Kaleb Cooper asks for reassurance from politicians that farmers like him are wanted and that it will still be possible to make a living from growing and rearing good food to high standards 

At last the British public have been given a TV programme that tells the truth about farming.

Above all, it makes one thing brutally clear: it is bloody hard work. It's stressful. It's on the edge.

Kaleb Cooper and Jeremy Clarkson were honoured by the British Farming Awards for raising the profile of British farming

I hope viewers, too, see the amount of enthusiasm that's involved.

Farming to me – like so many others – is not a job, it's a way of life.

I started on my 13th birthday, when my mum bought me three hens. I worked out that I could make £6-a-week profit from selling the eggs. Six months later I had 450 hens and a delivery round.

I went into school only so I could supply eggs to the teachers.

I love it – but you have to. Because farming is mentally and physically draining.

I'm now in my early 20s and I've set myself up as contractor – hiring myself out for specific jobs.

I start work at 6am and often finish at 1am.

People ask what time I finish and I just say, 'When the work's done.'

There's so much to go wrong, as the viewers see week after week, the main one being the weather.

We're completely dependent on something we can't control, and that's hard.

Like farmers across Britain, we didn't get enough sun in the Cotswolds this year, so the crops in the ground weren't drying properly.

Should we have left them there to rot and lose yield? Or should we have paid good money for heating equipment to dry the crops in the barn? How do you calculate that?

Mr Cooper hopes that if shoppers understand more about how much hard work goes into farming they will be encouraged to buy British

There are no monthly wages in farming and it all tends to come at once when a  job is finished or all the crops have been sold, leading to cashflow problems

If you're losing £200 an acre, that could be the difference between green and red, profit and loss, staying afloat or going under.

One mistake could cost you 25 per cent of your yield. It's not like running the hens when I was at school. Today, I have four tractors that cost me £150,000. That's a lot of money. What if something goes wrong with them? How do you pay?

In farming, we don't get a monthly wage. It all tends to come at once when you've finished a job or sold the crops. So there are big cashflow problems.

Then there's the shortage of truckers – so spare parts might not arrive for weeks.

Added to all this, the price of steel is shooting up. If I want a new tractor, it's going to cost me around 20 per cent more.

As for the idea of buying a farm, it's completely impossible for someone like me. The price of land has gone through the roof.

There's always something going wrong, whether it's machinery that won't work or sheep that keep on escaping no matter what we do.

And financially, it's getting more complicated every day.

Everything's up in the air. Right now, the Government wants us to plant fields of flowers and clover to encourage wild birds.

Is that a farmer's job? I went to college to learn how to grow wheat to feed the people of Britain.

One of the great things about Clarkson's Farm is that it's really, really showing people how hard it is – including Jeremy himself.

When he decided to give farming a go, he thought that he'd scatter some seeds on the ground and sit back while they grew into crops.

Farming relies on many external variables, whether it's machinery that won't work or sheep that keep on escaping

I can tell you, he's been a bit shell-shocked by how hard he's had to work.

I hope, as well, that viewers can see how much effort and time goes into creating something as apparently simple as a loaf of bread.

Shoppers can buy one for as little as 50p and never think about everything that has gone into making it.

Perhaps being aware of all this now will persuade more people to buy British, too.

Today, the average age of a farmer in this country is around 61. I'm not surprised.

Young people will be asking themselves, 'What's in there for me?' And 'How much money will there be at the end of the year?' It's not easy to find the answers.

More than anything else, we need reassurance from politicians that farmers like us are wanted, that it will still be possible to make a living from growing and rearing good food to high standards – and that there's a future for people like me.

Kaleb Cooper and Jeremy Clarkson have just been honoured by the British Farming Awards for raising the profile of British farming.

Clarkson's Farm is on Amazon Prime Video.