Minette Batters represents the interests of 47,000 members of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) as the organization’s president. She joined the podcast to discuss protecting farmers through agricultural policy, farm innovations that will lead to more sustainable food production and why she is hopeful about the future for farmers.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Minette Batters hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Tom: I’m Tom Martin, and joining us from her farm near Salisbury, Wiltshire, for our Agri-Food Outlook series is Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales. Her organization represents the interests of 47,000 members.
Tom: So, let’s begin with a little bit of background. You grew up on a farm and were discouraged from becoming a farmer yourself. You went on to catering for a time, but as they say, you can take the woman away from the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the woman. So, you returned to farming a couple of decades ago and you haven’t looked back. Can you tell us about that personal connection with working the land?
Minette: Well, I’ll try to sort of sum it out, really. I mean, I was brought up on the farm that I now farm on and live on. But my father was, as you say, quite opposed to women going into farming. But it was definitely something that I always wanted to come back to. And so, two decades ago, I did manage to get the chance to come back here.
We don’t own this farm here, which is quite common in the United Kingdom; we have a lot of tenant farmers, which are basically long-term farm business tenancies. And so, I was able to negotiate a new deal with my landlords, and that was basically about doing up some cottages in return for the land that went with it. So, that’s what we started with 20 years ago — very little stock on the place, no fences, no farm buildings, a lot of modernization needed.
And I guess my background — I trained in London as a chef — it came in really useful because I was able to keep that business going, and that very much helped us reinvest in what was needed in the farm. And now, we have a herd of pedigree Herefords and pedigree Aberdeen-Angus, which will be a breed that’s well-known to you.
And we have wedding venues as well, so it’s pretty busy here on the farm — and it’s a very different farm to the one that I took on all those years ago, and I’ve never regretted it; I never looked back. And (I’m), you know, living the dream, effectively, as they say.
Tom: And so, you bring to your role with the National Farmers Union experience on both ends of the supply chain: from farm to kitchen, to your work as a chef.
Minette: Exactly, a lot of experience. And I think those come in very useful now, really, for us as farmers and as a farmers’ union. We’ve very much been trying to make the case for farming policy here through the lens of food, through the lens of what we eat.
We have a lot of people here in the U.K. — nearly 70 million people on a relatively small island nation — so it’s a very important food market, and my job, I guess, as the president of National Farmers Union, is to keep our farmers and growers here the sort of number-one supplier of choice to the U.K. market, both at retail and at home.
So, it’s worked well, I think, for me to have a background, you know, (in) both ends of the value chain, really.
Tom: What are your priorities in your work with the National Farmers Union?
Minette: For us, it’s a very different time right now. We’re obviously leaving the European Union. We’ve left, effectively, and much of (our) trade with them has been important. We now are setting out on a very different pathway for agriculture.
So, we’ve just had legislation passed here. The last agricultural act was in 1947, and then, in 2020, we had the second, effectively, agricultural act. So, that will create a lot of change for the farmers I represent.
And, of course, you know, leaving the EU was all about wider trade opportunities. So, the U.K. and the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, all the Commonwealth countries, obviously, those trade discussions are ongoing. So, for us, it’s very much looking to the future, the role of farmers in delivering on climate change.
I do think it’s an exciting time, actually, to be a farmer. The challenge of continually mining things, effectively, out of the interest in agriculture, where we can grow things in a sustainable way on the earth, not only in what we eat but how we live our lives, is a massive opportunity for farmers across the world. So, I’m hopeful.
We host the cup here in November (and) the most important (UN) climate change discussions, and President Biden is coming in. Obviously, the U.S. is back at the table. So, for us, it’s all about future policies for trade, for how we produce our food, and really making sure that our farmers are seen as the solution in climate change.
Tom: 2020 was quite a tumultuous year, and all of that has remained with us as we begin 2021. And so, let’s begin with Brexit. I think you touched on a couple of these things, but the United Kingdom formally withdrew from membership in the European Union at the end of January 2020. And there were to have been negotiations on the terms of the future relationship between Britain and the EU, including trade and economic relations.
So, if you could, bring us up to speed on any agreements in areas that impact agriculture and food production and marketing.
Minette: So, trade with EU was always a really important thing to get agreed and to make sure that it is tariff- and quota-free, which it is. So, that has happened, but the EU has always been about the single market.
So, what I mean by that is a comprehensive set of standards that are all agreed by member states on how we trade. So, we were our part of single-market and the customs union, which allowed us to trade, effectively, tariff-free.
This is a very different trading relationship. It is a sort of traditional FTA agreement. There will be friction, (and) friction equals cost, so we do anticipate (that), and there is a level of friction and that level of cost. But what has been ratified here in the U.K. is being called the trade cooperation agreement between the U.K. and the EU.
I think that will be, to a certain extent, an iterative approach. It is without a doubt going to change, and it’s the start of a new relationship. But, for us, it’s 500 million consumers on our doorstep. It remains our key export market — 95% of our goods go into the EU. And, of course, 40% of our import is coming from the EU.
So, it was vital for both sides, really, that we agree (about) that new trading relationship. And as I say, we are now having trade discussions with other countries, the U.S. included. So, it’s a very different road that we’re on.
Tom: Climate change is on everybody’s mind right now. The EU Green Deal is a very ambitious plan to become the first continent in the world to become carbon neutral by 2050. Will Britain be a party to the Green Deal, and if so, what are the implications for farming and food production in the U.K.?
Minette: Well, Britain won’t be a part of the Green Deal, but it has set its own ambition and, indeed, legislated on that ambition with the Climate Change Act to achieve net zero by 2050. And for us at National Farmers Union, we see this as a real opportunity and, indeed, we set the marker down, if you like, to achieve carbon-neutral food production by 2040.
Now, that was primarily because agriculture is a source of emissions — currently, 10% here in the U.K. — but it is also a sink. So, it has the unique capability that other industries don’t have of being able to do something about it.
So, we don’t believe we need to downsize livestock farming to lower methane. We believe that, with the right policies, we can farm smarter — (we can be) smart, farm more efficiently, decrease our food production footprint, but still be producing the same amount, or potentially more.
So, we see climate change, for farming, as a huge opportunity to drive forward. So, that has been our focus. My focus, in particular, is making sure that my farmer members are not taxed in all of these.
So, I don’t think we’ll necessarily be in competition with the EU, but we share the same vision, and I know — you know, many farmers I speak to in the U.S., you know, they’re doing a lot on climate change. And I think the world’s consumers expect us to be able to get to a carbon-neutral position, but this is, I think, the exciting thing for agriculture: that we can produce things only in a sustainable way, whether biodegradable latex or whether massively reducing our methane. But, you know, we can do it in a way that others — other sectors, other industries — can’t.
Tom: I’m wondering if that imperative to become carbon neutral often drives a lot of innovation? I’m wondering what cool things you’re seeing happening right now in farming in service to meeting that goal?
Minette: Oh, you know, you’re so right. It does drive a huge amount of innovation. And we’re seeing now, here, the ability — tomato growers that are producing tomatoes are able to make all of their packaging out of the tomato vines, so you create a totally secular economy. So, the cardboard packaging is made out of the vine, and the film that goes over the top of it is made of the vine. And the good thing about that is, when you throw it away, the whole thing biodegrades.
We’re seeing a lot of progress being made in natural fibers — the opportunities of growing milkweed, producing biodegradable latex, focusing on sheep’s wool to make tree guards. We have, in the U.K., often — and I’m sure you have got plastic tree guards that (are) just left lying around forever (and are) totally unsustainable, not biodegradable, and sheep’s wool is fantastic, going back into the soil and providing nutrients, and it biodegrades as well.
So, we’re seeing enormous changes in innovations that are driving these, these new outcomes. And I think we’re only just touching the sides of it at the moment. I think the opportunities are enormous. We’ve got to make sure the value of all of these things goes back to the farm gate. I think, as farmers, we’ve always been very good at creating these massive opportunities, at lowering food prices. And then, of course, we see decrease, decreased value at about (the) farm gate. We’ve got to make sure that the value gets back to the farmer with all of these new opportunities.
We’ve also seen, with methane reduction, we’ve seen enormous benefit with feed additives. So, feeding micro algae and things like that to dairy cows, lowering methane but keeping the same amount of milk yield — again, taking protein is being fed down, but with the right feed additives, keeping the milk yield the same.
So, we see it as an exciting time and a real opportunity to influence (farmers) globally as well.
Tom: I guess where there’s a will there’s a way, isn’t there?
Minette: Yeah, exactly that, exactly that.
Tom: Minette, in an interview that you did for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs — and by the way, we recommend giving that a listen; just Google BBC Desert Island Discs — it’s mentioned in the interview with you that while 70% of British land is agricultural, many British citizens kind of feel estranged from the people who grow and produce their food. Does that mean there’s a need to improve that relationship in some way, and how would you do it?
Minette: There is a real need to produce — to increase, I guess, the relationship between producers of food and the people that consume it. And I think, in the U.K., we’ve seen a lot of people leaving the land and going into cities, into urban areas, and that has created many challenges.
You know, we used to, in the summer holidays, which were long, that used to be sort of — people could go out and do the harvest and pick the fruits. And we drove everybody, effectively, into the cities to upscale, to get to university, to go away from those jobs. And of course, then, (we) became very reliant on a workforce that has to come in here. So, in all of that, we’ve created more and more disconnect from the land and from the food that’s produced. So, this is why we continue to talk so much about food rather than farming.
We had a big campaign last year (that) had the sort of best chefs in the country. We had Jamie Oliver, who’d be known to many. We have Raymond Blanc and others who were all talking about provenance, about the need to buy British, to buy local, and that was really successful.
So, I think we need to be doing other solutions toward this, much more of that — really building the connection between provenance and health. I think we tend to talk about food, and we forget that, actually, we are what we eat. And COVID, of course, I think has really brought home to so many of us the importance of a healthy, balanced diet, of getting back, wherever possible, to eating whole food (and), possibly, less processed food, but eating whole foods with all the nutrient values that we need.
Tom: You mentioned COVID. In what big and important ways has the coronavirus pandemic impacted agriculture and food production in the U.K.?
Minette: COVID has been a massive, massive game-changer. And what happened was 50% of our market, our food market, is retailed by people (who), you know, go and buy their food, come home and cook it. But 50% of our market was out-of-home, so it’s food to go (to) restaurants, hotels, hospitality (and) sporting events. That would be a big part of the market.
And of course, when we had lockdown in March last year, that market just stopped overnight. All our garden centers were shut, so for the growers that rely on Easter as a massive part of what the season is growing for — people plant their gardens up at Easter — they lost all of those opportunities.
So, we saw some sectors (that were) really, completely obliterated. And the big challenge, I think, (that) we faced as farmers was the fact that we couldn’t furlough — in this country, we’ve been furloughing our workers, or paying for people to be out of work, and you know, big businesses (have) been able to lock their doors and leave them. You know, we had a perishable supply chain (and) couldn’t furlough our cows, couldn’t furlough our workers. And there were big losses, but it’s incredible how things have changed, and now, people are buying at retail very much how they would have eaten out (to cook) at home.
So, it is almost balancing out, and prices, at the moment here, across most sectors, are holding up, whereas in the beginning, we just saw enormous turbulence. We saw people panic-buying, so we saw a lot of empty shelves, and that created more panic. So, every time we go into a bit of a lockdown, then you see people panic-buying, and of course, that is disaster because the moment that starts, people just panic more.
So, it’s settled down a lot, but I think there’s been a lot of lessons learned on the back of COVID, and not the least that, you know, we shouldn’t take our food or our farmers for granted.
Tom: What about disruption at the border due to COVID-19 restriction? Does that remain a concern?
Minette: It’s created quite a lot of concerns and quite a lot of challenges with Europe, because we work on a sort of “just-in-time” sourcing, and trucks come in here, they load up and they go back out again. And there is, as I said at the beginning, the restriction there, so that’s not working quite as well.
And, you know, when we get problems at the border — and we’re seeing, now, restrictions on people traveling in. That side of it seems to be working okay, but I think it just depends how things go as far as goods go and imports go. It just depends, really, what happens. I mean, there are problems, but they are not nearly as bad as they were. And hopefully, things can, you know, return to a level of normality. We’re seeing, now, the vaccination program getting rolled out. And I hope, by the summer, that we can have a sort of new normal for us to return to.
Tom: More than a million people signed a petition that demanded assurances that British standards will not be undercut in any future trade deals. What’s the larger story behind this outpouring of sentiment? What is the message?
Minette: This is a difficult one, really. We had to — as farmers, all of us produce to very high standards of regulation, whether that’s animal welfare, whether that’s environmental protection or food safety.
And this is very, very different in America, where you have huge differences. You know, in California, you probably have higher standards than you have in many parts of Europe. But in the U.K. — that is, a smaller country — the laws on how we produce our food are very strict. And so, we’ve driven these high standards of animal welfare, which limits, you know, how many birds, say, you can keep in a shed, (or in a) pig cage, that you have to have windows in that shed. (The law) dictates that you have to have high security measures in place.
And so, our line was, you know, in trade, we are absolutely out for trading with the rest of the world, but we’ve got to try and have a common approach here that is basically fair. You know, it’s fair to farmers in other countries and fair to farmers here.
So, that was the whole reasoning behind it — because, of course, we had, in the run-up to Brexit, a lot of politicians saying the big cost of Brexit is (that) we’re going to get cheaper food. And our line was, actually, that job was being done. You know, we are very close to the U.S. — I think it’s the U.S. first, Singapore second, and U.K. third in (terms of the) affordability of food.
So, I think, for all of us as farmers, whether we farm in the U.S. or here or, indeed, in Europe as well, you know, we want to make sure that farmers stay in business and that we have fair approach to trade. And trade is a good thing for farmers across the world and, you know, just the farm in Africa and breaking to help African farmers trade.
So, we want to be trading tariff-free, without a doubt, but we want to try and have a common (and) fair approach to how we trade, and that really is what the petition was about. It was just really saying, “Do not undercut our farmers by tying their hands to the highest rung of the ladder and allowing imports in that don’t eat meat, the bottom rung of the ladder, which would just put our farmers out of business.”
That — that was really the driver behind that petition, and as I say, we had a million people, and so, that’s really just one in 60 people in this country saying that was what we wanted to see. So, it was one of the largest petitions ever, and it was really powerful.
Tom: Minette, you are quoted in an article for Southwest Farmer as saying, “The new year sees the government implement its own agriculture policy for the first time in 70 years. It will see a seismic shift in the way farming is supported with renewed focus on sustainable farming.”
So, I have a couple of questions around that. First of all, tell us about that shift in support.
Minette: So, this is very, very different to what we had before. Before, under European policy, the CAP — the Common Agricultural Policy — it was so much focused on an area-based payment, on a land-based payment. And that was really to keep food affordable to make sure that, you know, there was an investment in food production that stopped this thing (of) price spikes.
Now, the future view is very much to invest in the environment, and it’s called the Public Money for Public Good. So, not investing in food production, but investing in environmental delivery. And this is a global first.
You know, agriculture bills don’t come along every day of the week. This is, as you say, the second one in 70 years. And it is really important to begin it right. Now, we’ve got very little detail on the table at the moment, but also, because it’s been developing what sustainable farming can look like and making sure that the investment is actually tied to food production, as well for what the market isn’t paying for.
So, this is a very unusual and a time of enormous change for farmers over here, because, you know, in living memory, they haven’t seen this approach, and it’s a global first; I don’t believe there’s any other country in the world that has done what we are embarking on. So, it will be interesting to see how it works out. But we set an ambition with that “zero (emissions)” approach, and we really do want to be world leaders in climate-friendly farming.
Tom: In your mind, what does sustainable farming look like?
Minette: Well, what we wanted to do was very much focused in the field, into the soil. So, before, it’s been very much focusing on trees and hedges around the edges of fields or just being paid to have land. And our proposal is very much actually saying, “No,” you know, “we’ve got to look at right into the business, right into the soil.” A lot of farmers here now really recognizing that soil health is so important.
And there are many different things that are needed in all of these, but I’d sort of pick out, you know, one area in particular, which has been around lowering our use of antibiotics in animal medicines to deal with antimicrobial resistance. And that’s been enormously successful, and we’ve done that by driving better awareness in farmers (about) more responsible use of antibiotics but also improving genetics and improving health status. So, if you have a healthier animal, you need less antibiotics for it.
And that, of course, is all very much part of delivering on sustainable farming that decreases the food production footprint. So, for us, it’s about really getting into the business of farming and producing food and the policies that we need rather than just focusing on paying people, which — our government was very clear (that) it was not just going to pay people to produce food; they wanted to know exactly what that return on the investment looks like.
And we’ve got a massive driver here of environmentalists who believe money should be spent on the environment. So, we really wanted to create this shared synergy (of) producing food, caring for the environment and doing more for biodiversity at the same time.
Tom: Well, Minette Batters, I’m very curious about you and your work and your excitement around it. What gets you up and ready for another day?
Minette: Well, representing 47,000 businesses means that you’re always on your toes. And it’s such a time of change over here now. It’s really hard to put it into words just how different this road that we’re on is.
So, I feel enormous responsibility, I guess, for what I would call setting the foundation for the future and getting them right, so that my sectors, the farming (sector), can really have a thriving profitable future.
So that, I guess, gets me up every morning. I also have two teenage children who like I have to say I can spend forever trying to get them up. So, that keeps me on my toes as well. And, of course, my farming business. So, I make sure that — we have, obviously, the beef herd here, and I do all the feeding and all the stock work at the weekend so that I get my hands dirty and I keep my feet well on the ground.
So, it’s a whole mix of things at the moment. And I enjoy traveling a lot all around the U.K., and of course, not — many people, you know, are being at home (right now), which is sad. You know, (there’s) a lot of process to it, but you’re not in front of the farmers that you represent. So, I’m looking forward — hopefully, this spring, this summer — to getting back out on the road again, too.
Tom: Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, with us from her farm in Wiltshire.
Thanks so much, Minette.
Minette: Thank you so much