Outgoing NFU president Peter Kendall laid the blame for flooded farmland at the door of Labour and its appointment of conservationist Barbara Young as chief executive of the Environment Agency in 2000 when he spoke to journalists on the opening day of the NFU conference.
Mr Kendall – who admitted he was being more outspoken because he was demob happy – told an impromptu press conference: “We know what happened. When New Labour grabbed Barbara Young from the RSPB and put her in charge of the Environment Agency our waterways were treated like wildlife habitats and not treated as somewhere to get the water from our increasing urbanised landscape out to sea.”
As a direct result, he suggested, farmers in areas like the Somerset Levels have suffered successive winter floods that have made hundreds of thousands of acres of land un-farmable and caused misery, loss of income and loss of property in rural communities.
Mr Kendall, who stands down tomorrow (Weds) when a new president will be elected said in Holland waterways were properly maintained and regularly dredged to allow them to carry flood water out to sea. He said he wanted the British Government to take farming seriously on flooding and on other issues and understand its vital importance in providing the raw materials for a huge manufacturing industry.
“I want them to realise that this is not some old-fashioned industry – we want them to think about the importance of agriculture, right from the start,” he said.
Mr Kendall was upbeat about the state of UK agriculture, insisting that despite the problems with flooding and disease that were devastating for those farmers affected, the industry was in good heart.
“Across the UK wheat plantings are at a three year high; dairy farmers are by and large happy. British beef is getting a premium over Irish beef, British pork is getting a premium over European pork.”
Mr Kendall believes awakening concern over food security and correctly warning the age of cheap food was ending will go down as one of the most significant achievements of his eight years at the helm.
In his welcome address to the NFU annual review, launched at the NFU conference in Birmingham yesterday, Mr Kendall said when he took over, domestic farm policy suggested commodity agriculture in Britain had no future. “Food security was a phrase that dared not utter its name,” he said.
“If there is one thing for which the NFU can claim credit during my term of office it is the awakening of interest and concern over food security. When we said in 2006 that the era of cheap food was drawing to a close we were derided, but a series of global food spikes have proved us right. Produced more, impact less was the NFU’s watchword, one which as been widely imitated.”
He said a revival of interest in cooking in Britain had helped underline the quality of ingredients produced by farmers. “The NFU has played its full part in getting consumers to be concerned about where their food was produced. I know farm assurance has been controversial with many farmers, but I do believe the Red Tractor has played a major role in getting consumers to back British farming and get more British food on more British plate.”
Mr Kendall took farming as successful and growing business as the theme of his opening speech, the eighth and last he will make to an NFU conference. But he contrasted the United Nation’s call for a revolution in increasing farm production – doubling productivity while reducing resource use and preserving biodiversity – with the updated Common Agriculture Policy and its emphasis on green measures linked to subsidy. “If you want an example of a policy decision that goes against the grain, it is the greening rules introduced as part of the new CAP regime.”
Mr Kendall has consistently argued, through is time as president, in favour of increasing UK food production to meet growing demand from a fast-growing global population and a burgeoning middle class with a taste for meat and dairy products.
He warned Britain’s productive land needed to be protected to keep it farming and he said policy makers had to put a higher value on farmland. “We don’t just need a major re-think. We must stop sacrificing our productive farmland to crazy, rampant and thoughtless urbanisation,” he said. He insisted: “There are those who try to portray farming as not being a real business. That is profoundly misguided...Farmland is for food production.”