Minette Batters: Brexit has been “a face-slapping moment” for farming

The first female president of the National Farmers Union on why all is not well in the British countryside. 

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Minette Batters could not have chosen a more difficult time to become the first female president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). “Things could go massively wrong and it could decimate the industry,” she tells me at the NFU’s London headquarters. “It could destroy lives and livelihoods and families, and that is in the back of my mind at all times.”

The threat comes from a chaotic Brexit, which she has been fighting from the moment of her election in February last year. Her warning is grave: “If the government does forget about agriculture, if they do flood us with cheap ingredients that would be illegal for us to produce here, it would make what happened to coal and steel look like a walk in the park.”

Batters says Brexit has been “a face-slapping moment” for farming. Along with the climate emergency, it has forced the industry to think hard about sustainable agriculture. Batters’s approach has changed the NFU from a table-thumping defender of what farmers want to an organisation that is prepared to challenge what its members think is in their best interests.

This is clear from the NFU’s position on Brexit, which a majority of farmers supported. Although Batters says that the NFU “never campaigned to remain”, it did maintain “that it was in agriculture’s best interests if we remained under the European structure”. She adds that farmers “were lied to” and that “no deal was never supported by farmers”. Now the referendum is lost, “it’s not about cancelling Brexit, it’s about leaving in an orderly manner and making sure that our food values are valued”.

Batters’s handling of Brexit reflects her leadership style and strengths. She is careful to bring people with her, and one sign of the fruitfulness of her approach was the working relationship she had with Michael Gove, secretary of state for the environment until Boris Johnson’s night of the long knives. “I never thought I would enjoy working with Michael Gove. His reputation in education was dire – you speak to any teacher and they were damning about him.”

But she found that Gove understood what Batters idiosyncratically calls “the whole standards piece”. The NFU and Gove are not alone in claiming that the UK has some of the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. Without trade rules that protect them, supermarket shelves would be flooded with cheap imports from countries where agriculture has a worse environmental impact and lower animal welfare standards.

In this and other battles, Batters is up against the ideology of the free market, so often used to block regulatory change. “Do you remember when we tried to get one penny back to farmers for milk and competition law stopped it?” She describes the liquid milk market as “terrifyingly close to falling off the cliff”. Her voice remains calm but her language expresses anger: the sector has been “robbed” and “raped”, with the government allowing “that foul market to run itself”. The solution is stricter regulation. “But that doesn’t really fit with Brexit does it?”

Batters has also challenged the growing orthodoxy that farming is a major source of the climate problem rather than part of the solution. She has set the NFU the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, ten years ahead of the government’s target for the UK.

Batters’s sustainability agenda has won her some unlikely admirers. The NFU recently co-hosted a conference with the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), a harsh critic of the conventional farming methods most NFU members use. The SFT’s founder, Patrick Holden, says of Batters: “I admire her greatly.” Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, which certifies most of the UK’s organic food, calls herself “a big fan”. Batters even shared a friendly stage at the conference with Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion.

Batters believes the emerging common ground is a consequence of both sides moving beyond black and white. “The bottom line is it’s not about organic versus conventional, it’s about how we achieve sustainable practice.”

Batters is keen to make the case that livestock has an important role to play in this. “If there’s anywhere in the world where you should be producing red meat it’s in the UK because we have the climate to produce it.”

She argues that meat has become maligned because in many countries cattle are reared on feed grown on deforested land away from pastures, which act as carbon sinks. “I think the United Kingdom is paying a wrong price in the lens of the media for what it’s doing.”

For now, Brexit dominates Minette Batters’s agenda, much to her frustration. “This is all about the end of October, this is not about future policy.” The NFU finds itself in “full-on mitigation” mode, in case a no-deal Brexit happens.

There is a sucking of air when I mention Theresa Villiers, Gove’s replacement. But Batters says that encouragingly Villiers has already visited her on her Wiltshire farm, accompanied by David Kennedy, director general of Defra, and his deputy Mike Rowe. “It was a very positive meeting,” even though Villiers “was keen to [state] that we will be leaving under this prime minister with a deal or without a deal on 31 October”.

I mention that Boris Johnson has made noises about protecting UK farming standards and Batters points out that his partner, Carrie Symonds, is a big advocate of this. When I ask if she believes Johnson, Batters replies: “I often think at the moment is this brinkmanship or insanity? And we don’t know, do we?”

Julian Baggini’s most recent book is “How the World Thinks”

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy