They may not have cared much about it recently – think Boris Johnson and his bacon sandwich jibes in 2021 and Thérèse Coffey’s ‘let them eat turnips’ moment last year – but food and farming matters to the government in this election year.

Research published last week by the Country Land & Business Association – which represents 26,000 farmers, landowners and businesses across rural England and Wales – revealed the Tories face a potential rout in its rural heartlands when the election comes.

The likes of ex-Defra secretary Coffey, plus Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and GB News presenter and chlorinated chicken zealot Jacob Rees-Mogg, are among the Tory grandees facing the chop, according to the CLA.

It’s predicting as much as 51 of the 100 most rural seats in the UK will fall to Labour at the general election. A staggering 96% of those seats are currently held by the Conservatives.

And if that wasn’t enough to frighten the horses at Tory Party HQ, a poll of 4,068 adults, published by the NFU this week, revealed that 94% of respondents believed it was “important government backs British farming and food production”.

A further “81% said it’s important the food they are buying is produced in Britain rather than imported from overseas”, the NFU added. This may explain why Rees-Mogg in particular could see his tenure as an MP about to end.

“Farming is important to everyone in this country,” said now-former NFU president Minette Batters as the union’s annual conference in Birmingham drew to a close.

“The British public want whoever is in power to demonstrate how they plan to boost sustainable home-grown food production and care for the environment,” she added. “Support for British food and farming will be a deciding factor in the general election and all political parties should take note.”

Read more: Sunak promises annual food security review at NFU Conference

And prime minister Rishi Sunak did just that on Tuesday as he followed a standing ovation for the departing Batters with a first appearance at the annual showpiece by a prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2008.

Whether he convinced farmers with his package of support for the sector is another matter – with plenty of dissent voiced at the government’s rollout of the post-CAP Environmental Land Management subsidy schemes, its handling of extreme weather and flooding, and the disastrous effects of its post-Brexit trade deals.

Many spoke of Sunak’s speech – while making the right noises around the importance of food production and insisting “I’ve got your back” to the sector – as being uninspiring.

But Labour faced an equally stern grilling too.

Its leadership in the Welsh Senedd by Mark Drakeford is also under the spotlight over what NFU Cymru has described as the “shocking” impact its proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme could have on the Welsh farming sector.

Modelling by the union suggests the scheme, which proposes a mandatory reduction in farming area at the expense of tree planting and other sustainability-driven policies, could lead to an 11% reduction in Welsh livestock numbers, costing the sector £200m in lost farm income a year.

It was telling that Welsh rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths was not present at the conference, with Labour’s shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner declining to comment on the Welsh government’s policy – citing the vagaries of devolution.

Of course, that didn’t stop both Sunak and Defra’s farming minister Mark Spencer having a pop at what’s turning out to be a disastrous policy that has alienated Welsh farmers.

Read more: Sunak confirms £15m food waste fund, after years of industry campaigning

Both warned Labour would do the same for the rest of the country if they won power.

The SFS row has created a catalyst for a series of protests across Wales – the latest of which saw a large group of farmers barrack Drakeford on a visit to Rhyl yesterday.

Batters was equally scathing of the policy, telling delegates the SFS “cannot work” in its current guise. It was “a red line” for the NFU “and we will not cross it”, she added.

“In this, as in so many ways across Britain, food production is becoming the poor relation.” 

And despite Keir Starmer’s favourable appearance at the conference last year, an increasing number of commentators are asking what Labour’s policy is on key food sector issues.

“I’m not yet sure what their trade policy is, if I’m honest, and therein lies another challenge. Labour must have policies,” Batters told journalists at the conference. “They have no trade policy that they have shared publicly.”

Read more: Minette Batters on ‘rebooting’ as she steps down as NFU president

She also alluded to the fact she did not trust either leader on protecting British standards, despite pledges to do just that from both. “Trust is a big word,” she stressed.

All in all, anyone hoping to glean some clear policy positions from the two main parties may well have been disappointed this week. Sunak did say “we are absolutely committed to supporting you to produce high-quality [food] and making sure that you are not undercut when you were doing that, because that’s just not fair”.

But he also stressed he “was not going to write our manifesto here and now”, which means any commitments hoped for could still be watered down at the behest of the more extreme elements of his party.

With food production in turmoil and the prospect of protests only growing, farmers and the wider voting public will need to be convinced of the positions of each party ahead of election day.

And those who can’t do that could well pay for their inaction at the ballot box.