NFU conference 23 pic

CBI director-general Tony Danker is a class act. He may be a being from the Planet McKinsey, but he does a very passable impression of being an ordinary bloke. He has a winning line in self-deprecatory humour. He lulls his audiences into a false sense of security with blandishments and blarney. Then he whacks them right between the eyes with hard truths, delivered politely but very directly.

As the NFU Conference warm-up act for opposition leader Keir Starmer, Danker was perfect. In his Q&A with the (seriously impressive) NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw, Danker had a message for delegates calling for additional government support on energy bills: “If you want to march on Westminster, go ahead – but you won’t get Sunak and Hunt to change their minds. If you want to make progress with this government, you just have to go with the grain of policy, not against it.”

It’s a message the whole of the food industry could do with heeding. Indeed, the NFU and CBI could make a bit of a killing by offering the video of the discussion online for a modest subscription. It was a masterclass in analysis of the current political situation and the likely consequence for farmers and the wider industry.

Government minister Mark Spencer and his boss Thérèse Coffey had much more challenging encounters with the farmer audience, and with NFU president Minette Batters in the inquisitor’s chair. She is one of the food and farming sector’s few national figures and she was a big presence across the two days in Birmingham.

I confess, though, to being ever so slightly puzzled by the mood among the delegates. There are clearly some serious problems to confront – horticulture and growers are having a very tough time, driven by energy prices. So, too, are pig farmers, and the availability of labour, of course, is an industry-wide problem. Yet several farmers of my acquaintance report the last 12 months being their best-ever year. Moreover, the food security penny has finally dropped with our political class.

Six years ago I caused a bit of a stir when, as the FDF CEO, I told the conference: “Food is a matter of national security. If you can’t feed a country, you don’t have a country.” It was as though they were surprised someone else actually thought it too. How far we have come: in Birmingham, Starmer, Coffey, Spencer and Danker all offered the same thought as though it was a statement of the bleeding obvious.

That’s actually a measure of the impact Batters, the NFU, The Grocer and some others of us have had on the national discourse. Farmers – as well as manufacturers, retailers and hospitality – should be proud we can effect that sort of change in thinking. And we should all be significantly more self-confident about our collective ability to make other facets of the industry’s case on the national stage.