NFU Conference 2024: Food prices and unpredictable weather bring ‘tough times’ for farmers 

The future of British food and environmental challenges on farms were among topics raised during the annual NFU Conference 2024.

NFU Conference 2024: Food prices and unpredictable weather bring ‘tough times’ for farmers

A session chaired by NFU deputy president, Tom Bradshaw, looked into the future for British food. Mr Bradshaw said that among many current challenges across the world, enabling investment in UK food production has rarely been more important than at this moment in time. 

He added: “As farmers, we are proud to produce the raw ingredients that are enjoyed by 70 million consumers across the United Kingdom and beyond. At the same time, we face increasingly stiff competition from exporting countries that see our market as a destination of choice. 

“That leads to all sorts of questions, including how do we maintain the identity and story of British food, both in the retail and the out of home markets. How do we prevent importation of products that would be illegal to produce here and, more broadly, how do we protect the consumers.” 

The audience had a chance to look into the future of the British food industry thanks to the panel of experts who shared their extensive knowledge on the topic. It has been underlined that those subjects need to be raised in the times of the cost-of-living crisis and other challenges that worry customers as well as farmers and food producers. 

No farmers, no food

One of the speakers, Sarah Bradbury, the CEO of the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), said that the food industry is “absolutely nothing” without farmers, as they are the start of the food chain. She added: “With all the challenges ahead, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when it’s been so critical that we work together as a whole supply chain. We support each other to find and create the solutions we need now to feed and fuel Britain in the future.” 

Ms Bradbury said that the challenge is massive, but it is also a great opportunity for the farming industry. She added: “We have to meaningfully work and connect with the British consumer because British matters to our consumers, but not more than price. […] Without consumers on our side, we will fail. We need to connect with them, and we need to communicate with them in a really consistent way.” 

READ MORE : Dover farmers host protest at supermarket in row over cheap imports

Another speaker, professor Susan Jebb OBE, the chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), added that the agency’s surveys revealed that customers put more trust in imported food rather than food produced domestically. The price of food appears to be the main concern of the customers.  

She said: “That’s really tricky for farmers because it means the supply chain is going to continue to put pressure on you to reduce costs at a time when we know that many farmers are already struggling to make a profit. 

“FSA need to work with you to help consumers get the best value from the food that they buy. That means helping them to recognise the quality of the food that they’re purchasing and to see good food as an investment in their own health and indeed the health of the planet too.” 

Devastating weather conditions 

The chair of the Environment Agency, Alan Lovell, gave a talk on farming and the environment from the regulator’s point of view. He said that farmers currently face “tough times,” struggling with unpredictable weather conditions to name one of many issues.

Mr Lovell added: “Although we do some other important work on waste management and air quality, our primary focus is water, flood, drought and water pollution. […] I know that many of you have experienced devastating flood and drought events. It can take a huge financial and emotional toll upon you and your families, including some devastating long term mental health impacts, and we never forget that. 

“The three months at the end of last year were the wettest that we’ve had in this country since 2000 and the third wettest since 1871. I am very proud of how the Environment Agency dealt with those floods, but I’d also like to pay tribute to the NFU, who worked closely with us to help warn and inform farmers during those record events and for farmers yourselves for the support you provided for local communities in those times.” 

READ MORE: Farmers count losses yet again after Storm Henk hits the country

Mr Lovell said that the Environment Agency’s aim is to help farmers adapt, improve resilience, and thrive despite the greater climate challenges that are coming. He added that in 2022/2023, the agency spent over £200,000,000 maintaining flood risk assets. This sum rose by £25,000,000 this year. 

PM’s pledge 

PM Rishi Sunak has also made an appearance at this year’s NFU Conference, where he announced a series of new measures intended to support farmers. During his speech, he recognised the value of British farmers in putting food on our tables and caring for the countryside, amid a plethora of challenges.  

He pledged never to take food security for granted and to be “by your side” as farmers face the biggest change in a generation with the ongoing transition away from basic payments. The PM also pledged to continue to support meat consumption, never to make it mandatory for farmers to put a percentage of their land into environmental schemes, and to ensure the full £2.4 billion annual farming budget reaches farmers.  

NFU president Minette Batters opened the conference on Tuesday, 20th February and highlighted the solutions put forward in the NFU’s general election manifesto. She talked about the need for all political parties to commit to giving food security the same strategic priority as energy security, and sustainable food production the same ambition as legislated environmental targets.  

Mrs Batters added that the upcoming election will be “critical” to not only the future of UK farming, but also for the food on supermarket shelves, as well as in pubs, hotels, bars and restaurants. 

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