Speaking at the National Farmers Union Conference on Tuesday, February 21, Spencer recognized the need to move to the next phase of bovine TB (bTB) eradication and called for the whole industry to remain resilient as it continues to tackle the disease.
“I know how devastating it can be to livestock, to cattle owners, whose business is affected by [bovine tuberculosis],” he said, adding that the industry must ‘use every tool in the toolbox to eradicate this disease’.
Trials for a CattleBCG jab and new skin test have moved to the next phase, as announced by the animal and Plant Health Agency earlier this month. If this phase is successful, the industry will be another step closer to vaccinating cattle against the disease. The first phase of the trials began in 2021 and concluded in May 2022, with the analysis of the results from across 10 participating farms with 524 animals still in progress. According to Defra, the disease costs the taxpayer £100m/US$122m per year in England alone.
Minister Spencer was less clear on why Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payments for grassland are lower than those for arable land, however, in a key question posed to him by a dairy farmer. Spencer did not directly address the discrepancy, insisting the SFI had been designed to encourage farmers to consider environmental actions; pressed again to provide a better answer, Spencer again didn’t have a specific reply, but said Defra would consider revising the payments if those do not work for farmers.
‘Time is nearly up’
In a scathing opening speech to the 2023 conference, NFU president Minette Batters warned the government that ‘the clock is ticking’ for ministers to deliver on promises they had made. “It has been incredibly hard getting government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions,” said Batters. “The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do.”
She added: “I won’t let the opposition off either – I believe the rural vote will be crucial in the next election.”
The leader of the opposition, Labour’s Keir Starmer, also made a speech to conference attendees in a move that can be interpreted as an early election pitch to UK farmers. Starmer said his government would fix ‘the broken system’ that makes ag workers feel like they aren’t being listened to; a system that makes ‘politics for the people, not with the people’.
But he struggled to provide a concrete vision of how Labour would tackle worker shortages. “The era of abundant cheap labor is over,” he announced. “That’s not about Brexit. It is a practical challenge we will have to go through and solve together. Trust me – around the world, businesses are waking up to a totally new era for labor. The world has changed but it can be good for our economy and for UK farming, if it’s managed well.
"Any changes to our points-based migration system must come alongside a plan to move forward to a different model. Because over time our goal must be to help our economy off its immigration-dependency." - Keir Starmer, leader of the UK's Labour party
"To improve paying conditions where we can; work together to get the technological innovation we need deployed in our field. And carefully move to a more resilient model of British farming. A model where you are not nervously waiting each year to see if you have the staff.”
Starmer also insisted that the UK must have high standards ‘hardwired into trade deals’ in order to protect British food producers, adding that ‘distance matters’ in who the nation trades with. “We do not accept that the Brexit deal we got [with the EU] is good enough and we will improve upon that, make improvements for farming.”
Pressed by a conference attendee on what Labour would do specifically to make the UK a more attractive destination to overseas workers, Starmer said: “This has been an ongoing problem that has become a lot more acute. We have to make this an attractive place for workers, but we also need a long-term solution as well, using technology.” He added that government need to also encourage out-of-work people to take jobs in the sector.
Starmer also vowed that if his party won the 2024 general election, he would ensure 50% of food purchased by the public sector would be 'locally produced and sustainable'.