• By Michelle Pelletier Marshall

Executive Profile: Minette Batters, President of NFU

Minette Batters, who is the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) of England and Wales and has been called the most powerful farmer in the UK, was already on a mission to safeguard and improve Britain’s world-leading food standards when the coronavirus hit. Now, working with the more than 55,000 farmer members of the NFU, Batters is seizing the opportunity in a post-COVID recovery to ‘Build Back Better’.

Always a strong advocate of making changes relative to their environmental impact, Batters is now re-imagining the role of farming in producing climate-friendly food from globally resistant supply chains by being a catalyst for industry action, and collaborating with the government on the alignment of agricultural and trade policies. This is all being done with concern for protecting or improving the environment (the carbon footprint of NFU members’ cattle is already 2.5 times lower than the global average), and fulfilling NFU’s moral imperative to produce safe, sustainable, and affordable food at home and for its customers overseas.

And that is what Batters will expunge on in her keynote address at the Women in Agribusiness Summit Europe virtual conference on 2-3 July, originally scheduled to take place in Paris.

Batters is a farmer herself who runs a tenanted farm in Wiltshire, England, with a mixed farming business that includes a 100 cow continental cross suckler herd, as well as some Herefords, sheep, and arable, not to mention a converted barn that hosts weddings and corporate events. She has been an NFU member from grassroots through to county chairman, and in 2018, became the first female president in the history of the 112-year-old organization.

A passionate advocate for UK farmers, Batters has pushed for government investment in maintenance and infrastructure for the country’s water resources, has elevated the perception of British beef through the establishment of ‘Ladies in Beef’, and is currently working to reset ag policy as the country is in the midst of the implementation period of Brexit, which went into effect on January 31, 2020.

We caught up with Batters, who reaches out to her constituency often, including with weekly video log updates from her home in Wiltshire where she has been diligently working to further the NFU mission.

1. Brexit was official in January – the UK is no longer a part of the EU – and the transition period will continue through this year. What are your top three goals to keep farming thriving post-Brexit?

It all starts with getting trade right, making sure that whatever food we import is, wherever possible, up to the same standards that we have here. This is often confused with being about food safety, but it’s actually about the values that underpin food production – things like animal welfare, which have huge implications for veterinary medicine. It’s about making sure that we have a fair trade deal that doesn’t undermine our farmers and that very clearly is what consumers and environmentalists want to see as well. We feel it’s a real opportunity for leadership by the UK that we aim high, and that we have a real respect for trade deals that respect our food values.

The second point is having a new agricultural policy with leaving the CAP (the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy) that is about food production and the environment. Getting that right is the biggest change since 1947 when we had the agricultural act that shaped our policies within the EU.

The third point is having an immigration policy that is fit for its purpose – whether it’s seasonal workers or permanent workers, we are a very significant employer. It’s about having the right skill sets for the economy.

2. You have talked of achieving net zero in ag emissions by 2040 (with a willing government) by smarter climate-friendly farming, and through “UK agriculture that can and is ready to provide the solutions that are needed.” Can you please explain this further?

Our aim is absolutely to be delivering climate neutral food by 2040. To do this, we ultimately need policies that will incentivize climate-smart farming and focus on producing food on less ground with less impact. We feel that agriculture is unique – it is both a source of emissions, but it is also a sink. With smarter farming and new innovations and R&D moving at pace, we have the opportunity to be the pioneers on this, and hosting the Oxford Farming Conference in 2021 will be a great opportunity to lay out the global footprint for sustainable food production.

There are lots of things going on at Harper Adams University, which is looking at feed additives to reduce methane. They are changing cows’ diets: feeding them microalgae then monitoring their methane output. They are seeing really big changes in the levels of methane emitted without impacting yield. We are also exploring new plant breeding techniques in respect to climate change and our goal of producing food with less impact on the planet. It's a very exciting area for farmers because they are one of the few industries who are in the driver’s seat with the ability to make change happen.

Also as far as carbon sequestering, agricultural land plays a big part of this. It’s about getting ahead of this and being the solution, and responding to consumers who want to see climate-neutral food.

And consumers are more involved: the petition that we are running at the moment in support of British food standards has reached more than one million people in under a month. I think consumers now really value how and where their food is produced, along with other details. They are much closer to it, and they do want to see sustainable food production. I think it’s brilliant that they are taking an interest in it.

3. UK farmers work tirelessly to elevate their products to be the global standard and become “the pioneers that our world so desperately needs”. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for UK producers?

We have one of the largest and most prized food markets on the planet. We have 70 million people living in the UK and there are many countries across the world who would like access to our market. My priority is that whatever we are really good at producing, that we concentrate on producing as much as we can, and that we remain the number one supplier of choice for this market. But we also should focus on countries that face greater challenges at producing food than us that do not have the climate that we do, such that what we are not utilizing here, we are exporting.

The farmers across our organization want to play the part in the future. It’s going to be a different future post-COVID, but we need our farmers, we need them to produce our food and care for our landscape and environment. Farmers have a critical role going forward.|

4. How has COVID-19 impacted NFU members, and have you seen any positives result from the crisis?

It’s been a strange time because obviously you can’t furlough farmers. These are living, breathing supply chains – you can’t just turn them off – so farmers have kept farming. You have to keep growing your crops and rearing your animals and ultimately you need a market at the end of all of that. It’s those markets that have changed and been distorted all across the world.

For our farmers, there are some that have been unaffected and some who have been massively impacted – whether they are growing hops, apples, or supplying milk, there have been a lot of challenges for farmers. Things are recovering a bit in some sectors, but not everywhere, and the recovery is slow. It is about looking at who has lost their market and what can be done about it. Like with the ornamental growers – they saw a horrendous time where they lost Easter and they lost Mother’s Day as a time to sell their products.

There have been a lot of positives as well. People have gotten much closer to their food, buying local more often, cooking more at home. All these bring people closer to the supply chain, which is a game changer. Each of us has seen empty shelves where we were not able to buy what we wanted to buy, which has made many more appreciative of the food they can buy and where it comes from. In the long-term this will be very positive. We’ve had the Pick For Britain campaign that has offered harvesting jobs to those who are furloughed. This has highlighted the value of the sector and the value of growing. It’s been very successful.

ABOUT MINETTE BATTERS

Minette Batters is president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) of England and Wales, a position she has held since 2018. She has been an NFU member from grassroots through to county chairman; she served as Wiltshire’s Council delegate and also as regional board chairman for the South West. Batters also has been a member of NFU Governance Board and served as NFU deputy president from 2014 to 2018. She co-founded the campaigning initiatives 'Ladies in Beef' and the 'Great British Beef Week', and also is a Trustee of Farm Africa.

Batters runs a tenanted family farm in Wiltshire. The mixed farming business includes a 100 cow continental cross suckler herd, and a small herd of pedigree Herefords as well as sheep and arable. Diversification includes the conversion of a 17th Century tythe barn into a wedding and corporate events venue, and horse liveries.

~ Michelle Pelletier Marshall is managing editor for HighQuest Group's Global AgInvesting's GAI Gazette magazine and its WIA Today blog, as well as a contributor to GAI News and the Oilseed & Grain News. She can be reached at mmarshall@highquestgroup.com.

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Lynda Kiernan is Editor with HighQuest Group Media and of the Oilseed & Grain News. If you would like to submit a contribution for consideration, please contact Ms. Kiernan at lkiernan@highquestgroup.com.

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