Source: NFU 

NFU president Minette Batters said egg production had slipped to a billion fewer eggs than in previous years, with more shortages expected to come

Time is running out to safeguard UK farming for the future, the NFU’s president Minette Batters has warned, and the worst is yet to come from an increasingly alarming slump in production.

Speaking at the NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, Batters said a combination of soaring production costs and low returns meant production levels in many sectors had now fallen to unprecedented levels.

Delegates heard that egg production had fallen to its lowest levels in nine years, slipping by a billion fewer eggs compared with 2019 due to the sector’s ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, salad production yields were expected to drop to their lowest levels since records began in 1985 – amid a pullback in production due to soaring energy and other costs.

Elsewhere, many sheep and beef producers were also planning on reducing numbers, she said, citing a threat to food security that was being exacerbated by issues such as the war in Ukraine.

“Labour shortages and soaring energy prices are hitting the poultry industry, already reeling from avian influenza, as well as horticultural businesses and pig farms. Meanwhile, other sectors are facing an uncertain future as direct payments are phased out against a backdrop of huge cost inflation,” she added.

“We will always rely on imports to some degree, and it’s sensible to ensure diversity of supply. But food security also means ensuring our food is safe to eat, that it can be distributed efficiently, and that it remains affordable.”

With the cost of production up to 50% higher for some producers since 2019, Batters explained the returns being received from retailers and food manufacturers was significantly lower. “Farmers and growers must get the fair return their hard work justifies,” she urged, before adding “volatility, uncertainty and instability are the greatest risks to farm businesses” with “consequences being felt far beyond farming”.

Further concerns were raised about the “cumulative impact of trade deals on sensitive sectors”, including meat and sugar production. Batters said the farming sector would be “watching like a hawk” on the further deals to come post-Brexit.

She laid out three key priorities for the NFU: boosting productivity, protecting the environment, and managing volatility.

And the “clock was ticking” for the government to act in a meaningful way to support the sector by turning “its rhetoric” into “concrete actions”, she added, pointing to issues around the government’s omission of covered crops and poultry from its energy discount scheme as a key example of non-engagement.

Wholesale fruit & veg prices soar amid shortages in supermarkets

There had been some progress from government, particularly in areas such the new Environmental Land Management Schemes, increases to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers schemes and in securing the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission – leading to the creation of the Food and Drink Export Council and the placement of eight new agriculture attachés to sell British food overseas. 

“[But] more often than not – it has been incredibly hard getting government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions,” she warned. “The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do. I won’t let the opposition off the hook either, I believe the rural vote will be crucial in the next election.” 

Farming minister unveils extra funding 

Batters’ speech was followed by farming minister Mark Spencer, who outlined new policies being launched by the government, including more than £168m in grants being made available to farmers this year to drive innovation, support food production, improve animal health and welfare and protect the environment.

The grants will be delivered through the Farming Innovation Programme and Farming Investment Fund as part of the government’s commitment to spend around £600m on grants and other support for farmers to invest over the next three years. 

“The role farmers play in putting food on our tables as well as looking after our countryside is crucial,” said Spencer. “We know that sustainable food production depends on a healthy environment, the two go hand in hand.”

Also outlined were plans to better support smaller abattoirs with more funding following a 20% reduction in low-capacity abattoirs in the past decade.

“If farming is to flourish then we need to get the fundamentals right – abattoirs are key to the food supply chain and there is clearly a need to support smaller providers in this area,” said Spencer.

He also confirmed that payment rates for the Seasonal Worker scheme would be the same as national living wage. Last year, there were complaints after the rate of seasonal worker pay rose to above living wage to at least £10.10 per hour, adding further pressure to growers’ already slim margins.