‘Delay is the enemy’: Eustice resists farming union push to slow agricultural transition

The environment secretary has pushed back at the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) call to delay DEFRA’s agricultural transition policies.

During a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, George Eustice entered into a tense exchange with Minette Batters, president of the NFU, saying that where the agricultural transition is concerned “delay is the enemy”. 

The NFU has been calling for the government to conduct an urgent review of the future farming programme for England, which includes the government’s environmental land management schemes (ELMS). The union also expressed concerns yesterday at the National Audit Office’s report which said that DEFRA “had not yet published detailed objectives or ensured adequate incentive for farmers’ participation in the new ELMS”. 

ELMS is intended to award farmers for producing environmental improvements and public goods, but Batters has said that a review would provide ministers with “more time to develop replacement schemes” and for the sector to move forward from the multiple issues it’s currently facing, from supply chain to labour shortages.

However, during the discussion, Eustice and Batters locked heads on the issue. While Eustice described the agricultural transition as once in a generation, Batters, who was hosting the panel, hit back saying that in fact, “this is seismic”.  

We have “one chance to get this right”, she said, “one chance and we cannot afford to fail”. 

In an earlier panel event, hosted by the Conservative Environment Network on nature-based solutions to the UK’s biodiversity crisis, farming minister Victoria Prentis echoed the secretary of state, saying “we can’t delay agricultural transition”, and emphasised how crucial the government’s future farming policy is for DEFRA’s ambition to halt the decline of species by 2030. 

However, Prentis conceded that getting farmers to take up the schemes in the required numbers “is a challenge”.

When asked by ENDS what steps DEFRA was taking to ensure enough farmers get involved in ELMS to make it a success, while she did not outline concrete measures, she acknowledged that “it is messy, it is difficult”.