AS WE close the book on what has been an eventful year, I’d like to survey the events of 2019 and look ahead to see what is on the horizon in 2020.
We’ve just emerged from the third UK General Election in four years, following what has been a period of extraordinary political instability. The result of December’s election gives the Prime Minister the majority he has been seeking to take forward his Brexit plans. Although in legal terms we cease to be an EU Member State at the end of January, there is much work ahead to secure the access we need to our nearest and most valuable export market.
Although uncertainty persists, I am ambitious for our sector. Wales’ farmers have the skills, natural resource base and ambition from which to rise to future challenges and opportunities which lie ahead. These opportunities include increasing our self-sufficiency by producing more high-quality food, securing new export markers and becoming producers of the most climate-friendly food in the world by becoming zero net emitters of greenhouse gases by 2040.
Leaving the EU at the end of January based on the current withdrawal agreement means that we enter a transition period, during which time we continue to enjoy access to the EU’s single market. We must ensure that when that transition ends, we can access that market on the most favourable terms possible, with tariff and non-tariff barriers eliminated wherever possible. The UK’s government must also avoid a situation whereby the transition period elapses without having reached an agreement on a future trading relationship with the EU, culminating in us trading with the EU on WTO terms.
Trade talks with third countries will begin soon and one point I have been making consistently, and for some time now, is that we must not allow our own high environmental and animal welfare standards to be undermined in any future trade agreements that the UK may enter into. I, therefore, want 2020 to be the year in which the new government moves ahead with the creating of a Trade and Standards Commission, which will be tasked with ensuring our high standards are upheld and respected in any future trade agreements with third countries.
2019 also saw the second stage of the Welsh Government’s consultation on the future of agricultural policy in Wales. The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ consultation followed its 2018 predecessor, ‘Brexit and our Land’, and we were pleased to see these revised proposals including future support around the principle of sustainability. The union remains concerned, however, that the proposals suggest the continued supply of vital economic, social and cultural benefits provided by Welsh farming currently can be secured through what is, essentially, an agri-environment scheme. I’d like to once again thank all farmers and those living in our rural communities who responded to the consultation. We now wait for the Welsh Government to analyse the responses and bring forward the next stage of the process in 2020.
Sadly, as we welcome in the New Year, around 650 cattle farmers in Wales are affected by bovine TB restrictions and this, of course, has a significant knock-on effect on their business and family. NFU Cymru continues to lobby the Welsh Government to review its bovine TB eradication strategy and deliver a more holistic policy that tackles this disease across all its vectors. A peer-reviewed scientific report examining the effectiveness of badger culling in reducing outbreaks of TB in cattle has shown positive results in Gloucestershire and Somerset and we now look to Welsh Government to listen to the science and use all of the tools at its disposal to control the reservoir of disease in wildlife – not just through cattle controls. We also need the Welsh Government to look at the support for chronic herds in Wales and the massive impact long term breakdowns are having on these businesses.
On the dairy side, we look forward to a long-awaited consultation on statutory milk contracts. There are examples of good practice out there but what other industry would allow six weeks of payments in arrears and for processors to adjust prices at a whim? Of course, we want processors to have successful profitable businesses, but we need the same for our milk producers. After all, these are the people taking the price risk when product prices fall. This has to change as evidenced by the latest Welsh Government farm statistics when dairy farm income fell by a massive 43% in the year ending March 2019 compared to the previous 12 months. Statutory contracts will help bring back some stability which the sector needs right now.
Against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and low market returns, the threat of regulation continues to weigh heavily on farmers’ minds. Back in November 2018, the Welsh Government announced regulatory measures covering the whole of Wales to protect water quality from agricultural pollution coming into force in January 2020. From information provided by the Welsh Government in early 2019, it is clear the proposed new regulations are whole territory Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) with the NVZ Action Programme requirements applied across the whole of Wales.
The Minister, in December 2019, confirmed that she will be considering advice from officials in January on the introduction of agricultural regulations following further engagement. NFU Cymru categorically rejects any proposals which include the introduction of the Nitrates Directive and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) across the whole of Wales. This is based on the evidence which shows an all-Wales approach simply cannot be justified; that the existing NVZs in Wales have had limited effectiveness. The great harm an all-Wales NVZ will do to farm businesses and our rural communities, which greatly outweigh any benefits to water quality, cannot be justified. We are clear, an all-Wales NVZ approach is not evidence-based, proportionate or targeted and we continue to work tirelessly to emphasise to Welsh Government the devastating impacts that an all-Wales NVZ approach will have. We urge the Minister to recognise that poor regulation serves no one – not government, not society, not the farming industry or the environment – and work with us to develop the framework to support farmers to take action to improve water quality where this is needed.
2019 has also been a year when the glare of the media on Welsh and British farming has not been as balanced as we would expect. I have long said that, as an industry, we are not immune from critique and we relish the opportunity to stand up and promote our values and leading standards. What we do not and will not accept, however, is unbalanced reporting and false news pedalled by those with an agenda against farming. This year NFU Cymru has shown we tackle such behaviour through robust complaints and other means. Please be assured that we are prepared to escalate our actions accordingly if required.
There will no doubt be huge challenges facing our industry in 2020 and beyond. As an industry, we should all be very proud of the role we play and we must remain steadfast in our ambitions to continue to deliver for the people and communities of Wales. As an organisation, NFU Cymru is ambitious for Welsh food and farming. Politicians in both Cardiff and Westminster must commit to working with us to deliver our ambition for a productive, progressive and profitable farming sector that delivers for the whole of Wales
UK Government publishes Agriculture Bill
NFU CYMRU has welcomed the reintroduction of the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill to Parliament after the previous version was lost in light of December’s General Election.
Commenting on the Bill’s introduction, NFU Cymru President, Mr John Davies said: “I am pleased that a new Agriculture Bill has now been introduced to Parliament, with many of the provisions NFU Cymru has pushed for reflected in this important piece of draft legislation.
“In particular, I am glad to see that the Bill will provide a mechanism to reform the sharing out of the red meat levy across Great Britain. The fact that a significant proportion of Welsh livestock ends up being slaughtered outside of Wales means that there is a significant annual loss of levy funds to Wales’ red meat promotion body, Hybu Cig Cymru.
“The current basis for levy collection is flawed, as it based solely on the location of the abattoir, something which lies completely outside the control of the primary producer. NFU Cymru has been calling for reform in this area for many years now. Once the relevant parties are equipped with the powers they need to address this anomaly, we will look to them to work together to ensure that a mutually agreed, equitable and fit for purpose scheme is up and running as soon as possible
“I also welcome the obligation that the Bill will place on Ministers to report on food security to Parliament. The issue of food security has not been given the prominence it deserves, and hopefully, this new duty that the Bill places on Ministers will go some way towards ensuring that food security is at the forefront of politicians’ minds.
“Fairness and transparency in the supply chain is another issue that NFU Cymru has been pushing hard for many years, so I welcome the fact that the Bill equips Ministers with powers to address supply chain issues. Across many sectors, we have seen inexplicable downward price pressure, including most recently in the beef sector, which dents farmers’ confidence and their ability to invest for the future. Stamping out unfair trading practices and improving the bargaining position of farmers in the supply chain are vital steps we must take to ensure a viable future across different sectors.”
Mr Davies did, however, raise concerns about the omission from the Bill of provision concerning standards: “Although we have had numerous assurances from the UK Government that it will not allow the import of food produced to environmental and animal welfare standards which would be illegal here, I think an opportunity has been missed to legislate around standards in future trade deals.
“For some time now we have been pressing the Government to introduce a standards commission as a matter of priority to oversee and advise on future food trade policy and negotiations – this Bill could have been how this could have been delivered. We will continue to press the Government on this issue, to ensure that Wales’ farmers can compete on a level playing field after Brexit.”
About future Welsh agricultural policy, Mr Davies said: “Agriculture, and the development of future agricultural support policy, is, of course, a devolved matter. When the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill was first introduced in 2018, the Welsh Government took powers in it which would have allowed them to operate new schemes in Wales post-Brexit.
The Welsh Government has confirmed it will not be doing so this time around, opting instead to introduce its own legislation to the National Assembly in Cardiff in due course. NFU Cymru looks forward to working with politicians in Cardiff to deliver policy for Wales which delivers against our three cornerstones of productivity, stability and the environment to realise our ambition of a productive, progressive and profitable Welsh agricultural sector.
“In the nearer term, the UK Government Agriculture Bill will provide Welsh Ministers with the powers they need to continue paying direct payments beyond 2020. I very much welcome commitments made by our own Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM in this respect to continue with the Basic Payment Scheme unchanged for 2020 and 2021, this provides stability to the sector at what is an uncertain time.
“NFU Cymru will continue to scrutinise and examine this Bill in great detail over the coming days and weeks to ensure that it delivers on these vital issues for farmers while providing the environment we all need for a thriving agricultural sector post-Brexit.”
Lesley Griffiths said: “As we prepare to leave the EU and enter the post-Brexit transition period, my message to the UK government is to ensure Wales’ interests are taken into consideration in trade negotiations and during talks about the future relationship with the EU. We also strongly believe there must be no erosion of standards for food, human and animal health and environmental protection.”
In a written statement responding to the Bill, Ms Griffiths said: ‘The powers being taken for Welsh Ministers are intended to be temporary until an Agriculture (Wales) Bill is brought forward to design a ‘Made in Wales’ system which works for Welsh agriculture, rural industries and our communities. Provisions relating to Wales are contained in a separate Schedule.
‘The Bill introduced on January 16, provides powers for the Welsh Ministers to continue paying Direct Payments to farmers beyond 2020 and gives our farmers much-needed stability during this period of uncertainty. It also contains certain other powers, including those which are important to ensure the effective operation of the internal market in the UK.
‘Given the passage of time since the original Bill was first introduced in September 2018, I have reflected on the scope of the Welsh schedule, taking into account the helpful reports provided by the Senedd during scrutiny.
‘I have concluded it is no longer appropriate to take powers to allow the Welsh Ministers to operate or transition to new schemes. My intention now is these will be provided for instead by the Agriculture (Wales) Bill. I intend to publish a White Paper towards the end of 2020 which will set out the context for the future of Welsh farming and pave the way for an Agriculture (Wales) Bill’.
The TFA, while welcoming the UK Bill, said it could be further improved.
George Dunn, TFA’s CEO, said: “Whilst the Bill is better than the one that went before, the task now is to ensure that we make it the best Bill it can be.
“For example, the obligation upon the Government to prepare a report on food security should be annual, not just every five years. The strengthened supply chain measures should be regulated by the Groceries Code Adjudicator and not given to the Rural Payments Agency to oversee. The schedule of changes to tenancy legislation also needs to be bolstered with further measures to assist older tenants into retirement, encourage landlords to let for longer periods of time and protect tenants from spurious notices to quit.”
“Rather than supporting non-active landlords,” Mr Dunn said, “it is also essential to ensure that future financial assistance properly supports active farmers – those in occupation of land, taking the entrepreneurial risk for the activities occurring on that land and in day-to-day management control. If the Bill does not spell this out, there will be a significant risk that public funding will be misdirected.”
George Dunn sounded the same note of caution as John Davies and Lesley Griffiths about the risk of watering down food standards: “There’s nothing in the Bill that protects the UK market from imported food and food ingredients produced to standards that would be illegal within the UK.
“To date, the Government has shied away from legally binding commitments. It’s time for the Government to enshrine its strong words on protecting our standards in trade in legislation.”
FUW concerned by National Trust plans
FUW staff have expressed major concerns regarding the implications for members, who are National Trust tenants, given the Trust’s plans to plant large numbers of trees on their land.
The concerns were expressed during a meeting of the Union’s County Executive Officers who represent members in Wales’ twelve FUW county regions, some of which include large areas of land owned by the trust.
On Thursday (January 9) the General Director of the Trust revealed plans to grow 20 million trees over the next 10 years by planting saplings or removing livestock to allow self-seeding and dozens of farm tenancies are to be altered as they come up for renewal to cut sheep and cattle numbers.
To achieve their target, the Trust is looking to spend about £90 million creating 18,000 hectares of woodland, increasing the proportion of Trust land that is forest from 10 % to 17 % by 2030.
Speaking after the meeting, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “Our members are fully supportive of appropriate tree planting where this does not undermine farm productivity and the environment. Indeed they regularly complain about the obstacles they come across when they try to plant trees.
“However, many National Trust farmers have contacted us to raise concerns regarding the announcement. Of course, given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the role played by soils and plants in sequestering carbon is rightly attracting significant attention, with a particular focus on the planting of trees.
“But we mustn’t forget that within the past century, the area of woodland in Wales increased threefold, from 5% in 1919 to around 15% in 2016, with mainly deciduous farm woodlands making up 30% of the area.”
The Union President further stressed that the experience over the past century highlights the damage that well-intentioned policies aimed at increasing woodland areas can have.
“With the trust proposing to remove sheep and cattle from land to allow natural afforestation, it must also be remembered that the removal of agriculture has been directly associated by scientists with habitat and species loss in hundreds of examples from around the world, including the UK.”
The charity Plantlife recently warned that ‘…more than half of all wild plants need regular management or disturbance to thrive; 611 (39.6%) species will decline within a decade if the land on which they grow is simply abandoned and 127 (16.4%) will decline within 1-3 years’.
“If the National Trust wants to do more to become carbon neutral, perhaps looking at providing public transport to their sites would be a good place to start. That is especially pertinent if we consider their annual visitor numbers top 25 million and the carbon footprint these generate.
“Transport is the third-highest polluter, with agriculture responsible for just 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, UK beef and lamb carbon emissions are 35% lower than the current global average and emissions from Welsh agriculture have decreased by 12% since 1990 as a result of a range of improvements.”
Given such concerns, Mr Roberts has written to the Trust to ask them to clarify their plans and highlighted the concerns of tenants as well as those who farm near National Trust land.
More slaughter as TB strategy fails
THE LATEST data relating to bovine TB in Wales has revealed an alarming and unsustainable rise in the number of cattle slaughtered due to this disease.
According to recent data, the number of cattle slaughtered in Wales in the 12 months to October 2019 was 12,742 and this is the highest number on record.
Indeed, whilst the most recent data reveals a 12% fall in New Herd Incidents in the 12 months to October 2019, the number of cattle slaughtered over the same period was 24% higher than the previous year.
FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “Although the data from TB Dashboard shows improvement in some areas, the number of cattle slaughtered remains unsustainably high. Just 917 cattle were culled in 1996 due to this disease and it is a sad and disturbing fact that the Welsh cattle sector has now become somewhat used to cattle slaughterings reaching the many thousands each year.”
The Union President added that losing TB-free status is devastating to farming families and their businesses. “The loss of precious stock and the restrictions on a farm business can be incredibly destructive and it is extremely distressing for our members who have worked hard to gain TB-free status, only to lose it again in the subsequent years.
“A TB breakdown is not only financially crippling for the farm, but also impacts more widely as struggling farm businesses are less able to contribute to both the local economy and further afield.”
High sensitivity testing, such as gamma testing and the removal of inconclusive reactors at severe interpretation, is blamed for some of this rise. However, this will be of little comfort to FUW members, many of whom have seen a huge number of cattle removed from their farm, he added.
“Despite a wealth of evidence on the important contribution of wildlife control to TB eradication in some places, the current TB programme continues to focus almost entirely on cattle controls.
“The FUW has continued to reiterate members concerns regarding the implementation of measures such as high sensitivity testing, without significant measures to tackle the disease in wildlife.
“The number of cattle herds registered in Wales has declined by 43 per cent since 1996. Bovine TB is one of the most serious issues facing Welsh cattle farmers and a more holistic approach, which seriously tackles the wildlife reservoir, is required urgently,” said Glyn Roberts.
Andrew RT Davies AM/AC – Shadow Minister for Environment, Sustainability, and the Environment – said: “Each month, farmers and others in our rural communities anticipate these figures with apprehension, and with good reason.
“The stats for the year to October 2019 show that 12,742 animals were slaughtered because of bovine TB, which – up from 10,303 – is a rise of 24 percent on the same period in 2018. England, by contrast, saw a drop of two percent.
“Clearly, the Welsh Labour Minister for the Environment and Rural Affairs has not got to grips with her brief in the almost four years in her post, and farmers – and the rural economy – here in Wales suffer as a result.
“But the suffering is not only financial.
“In the Senedd last week my colleague Paul Davies AM/AC spoke passionately on the subject of farmers enduring mental health problems. Bovine TB is another pressure, another cause of stress that our hardworking farmers and their families suffer, and it’s time it ended.
“A Welsh Conservative Government would develop a new, holistic approach for the eradication of bovine TB and look at all options to achieve this.
“Until then, we will harry this Welsh Labour administration to listen to farmers – as well as the Farmers’ Union of Wales and NFU Cymru – to step up its efforts to control this disease and bring this crisis to an end.”
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