Britain’s farming sector has defied the recession in recent years by contributing an additional £8.6 billion to the UK economy, according to research published today.
The study was released this morning as outgoing National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall welcomes delegates to today’s National Farmers’ Union conference with a call to politicians to back science-based support for agriculture.
The research shows UK agriculture’s contribution to the economy increased by 54% between 2007 and 2012.
The report, entitled Backing the Business of British Farming, also claims that food and drink is now the UK’s fourth-largest export sector, having grown by 2.5% in the first half of 2013.
Speaking ahead of the event, Mr Kendall said: “The achievements shown in this report prove that farming has been delivering for Britain’s economy despite the challenges thrown at us over the past couple of years – heavy rain, drought, unseasonable snow and in recent weeks we have all seen the impacts of flooding across the country.
“We are growing businesses. We are creating jobs. If the Government is looking for a sector to kick-start growth and rebalance the economy then they should start by looking at agriculture.”
The report found agriculture contributed £8.6bn more to the UK economy between 2008 and 2012 than it did from 2003 to 2007.
The two-day NFU conference, at Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, takes business as its theme and features speakers from politics, food retailing and international finance.
Mr Kendall, who is standing down after the conference following eight years leading the union, welcomes political guests Owen Paterson, Defra Secretary of State, and George Eustice, Farming Minister and MP for Camborne and Redruth, to the event.
He describes the political support for the badger cull thus far as ‘superb’ but warns: “It is just as vital that ministers battle for science-based decision-making on crop protection products as well as delivery on better regulation.”
Mr Kendall, who has been credited with bringing a new confidence to farming during his tenure as NFU president, has also faced criticism, as an east of England ‘barley baron’, for allegedly failing to take the concerns of Westcountry livestock farmers seriously enough.
In a critical description of Mr Kendall’s reign, prominent Devon farmer and former NFU national livestock chairman Richard Haddock pulls no punches.
“Peter Kendall has succeeded in pulling the last remaining teeth the NFU had. Dissenters and innovators have been eased out of positions of influence and power to be replaced by compliant placemen,” he says.
“The NFU has also ceased to have any relevance for hundreds of farmers because the traffic has all been one way. Their views are never listened to or acted on. All they get is a constant stream of policy decisions, taken remotely by people who rarely have any real experience of local conditions.”
Mr Haddock goes on: “The NFU has also failed, miserably, to move with the times. It offers nothing to the thousands of farmers who have been obliged to diversify to stay in business because inaction by the NFU has allowed commodity prices to remain at ruinously low levels in historic terms.”
But Mr Kendall, who will be replaced after the end of the conference tomorrow by either the current deputy, Meurig Raymond, or vice-president Adam Quinney following a vote by the NFU Council, defends his record this week in the farming press.
He tells Farmers Guardian: “I think I have been unbelievably lucky. The industry is in a better place thanks to exchange rates, commodity price spikes but also, I think, because the NFU has been prepared to stick to its relentlessly upbeat message.”
In Farmers Weekly, Mr Kendall points to rising numbers of students studying for jobs in farming. “I hope that is because we haven’t been moaning but telling people this is an exciting, hi-tech and innovative industry.”
Among the speakers at the conference are Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, and global financial investor Jim Rogers, whose presence is seen as underlining the tremendous future farming has as a successful business feeding the fast-growing global population.
Mr Kendall said he is particularly keen to hear from the Government’s new chief scientist, Mark Walport. “He will give his first high-profile speech specifically on farming. After being in the news recently for his comments on climate change [urging climate change deniers to ‘give in’] his words at conference will be eagerly awaited.
“The recent floods experienced by so many areas of the country have devastated farm businesses. Farming and food production should not be granted the lowest priority when it comes to flood management.”