The Question Time Panelists were:
Minette Batters, NFU President
Minette was elected President of the NFU in 2018 and re-elected in 2020, serving as NFU Deputy President from 2014-18. She has been an NFU member from grassroots through to County Chairman, serving as Wiltshire’s Council delegate and Regional Board Chairman for the South West. Minette has also been a member of the NFU Governance Board. She runs a tenanted family farm in Wiltshire. The business includes a 100 cow continental cross suckler herd, a small herd of pedigree Herefords, as well as sheep and arable. Diversification includes the conversion of a 17th Century tithe barn into a wedding and corporate events venue, and horse liveries. Minette co-founded the campaigning initiatives ‘Ladies in Beef’ and the ‘Great British Beef Week’. She is a Trustee of Farm Africa and has recently appeared on Desert Island Discs.

Ian Wright CBE, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation
FDF is the representative voice for companies and trade associations across the UK food and drink sectors. Before joining FDF in 2015 Ian spent 14 years with Diageo plc – the world’s largest drinks business. At Diageo he was the Corporate Relations Director responsible for the company’s reputation. Earlier, he worked for Boots the Chemist and Mars Confectionery and had spells in consultancy and politics. He chairs the Food & Drink Sector Council – the Government’s industry advisory body. He also chairs the Food & Drink Trade Association Round Table. Ian received a CBE for political and public service in August 2015.

Professor Sir Charles Godfray FRS
Charles Godfray is a population biologist with broad interests in science and the interplay of science and policy. He is particularly interested in food security and chaired the UK Government Office of Science’s Foresight project on the Future of Food and Farming and is currently chair of Defra’s Science Advisory Council, and a Trustee of Rothamsted Research. He has spent his career at Oxford University and Imperial College and is currently Director of the Oxford Martin School and Professor of Population Biology at Oxford. His research has involved experimental and theoretical studies in population and community ecology, epidemiology and evolutionary biology.

Dr Darren Moorcroft, CEO The Woodland Trust
Darren joined the Woodland Trust in 2017 and was made CEO in 2019. The Woodland Trust is the UK’s largest woodland nature conservation charity with the aim to protect, restore and create woodland. The Trust has over 500,000 members and supporters. The Trust plants millions of trees each year from individual trees to large scale woodlands. The Trust campaigns to protect the UK’s irreplaceable ancient woodlands by working with owners to help restore these to their former glory. Darren is also a member of the BBC Rural Advisory Committee. Prior to joining the Woodland trust Darren spent 13 years in various roles with the RSPB including Head of their UK Conservation Programmes, Head of Species & Habitat Conservation, Head of Conservation Delivery and Project Manager at Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire.

The Master, Richard Whitlock chaired the proceedings, much of which focused on Brexit. After four years of wrangling, the prospect of the UK crashing out the EU with no-deal was finally taken off the table on Christmas eve, as the two parties agreed a tariff- and quota-free trade deal. It was a major relief for UK farming, with most sectors – including grain production – relying on frictionless trade with the bloc of 27 European countries for profitable exports.
NFU president Minette Batters said getting a deal was essential in protecting market opportunities and, while the deal isn’t perfect (the NFU estimates producers will have to contend with 4-8% addition export costs,) but it avoided the immediate disaster that some predicted if negotiations failed.

Throughout the Brexit process, Ms Batters said agriculture managed to get its voice heard effectively, not only influencing the trade deal, but also the recent Agriculture Act passed late in 2020. Part of the act ensures greater transparency in future trade negotiations and ensures parliament has time to scrutinise and hold the Government to account on its manifesto pledge to uphold food standards.

The Agriculture Bill is a “landmark moment” for post-Brexit farming. A new payments system will replace the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS), funded under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – which Defra described as “inefficient and largely bureaucratic”, skewing payments towards the largest landowners, based on the size of their land rather than rewarding farmers properly for the work they do.

The Agriculture Bill sets out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded in the future with public money for “public goods”. This includes measures to improve air and water quality, enhance wildlife and soil health, reduce flooding and tackle the effects of climate change, under its flagship Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. These incentives will provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of the government’s 25-year Environment Plan and the UK’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Direct payments will be phased out over an agricultural transition period, starting with the 2021 BPS year and running until the end of 2027. This will allow farmers and land managers the time they need to adapt to the new approach and consider which component of the new ELM scheme will work best for their farm.
Farmers and land managers will also be able to apply for alternative support during this time, with productivity grants on offer next year and with Countryside Stewardship schemes remaining open to new applications in the first few years of the agricultural transition period, which will help farmers to springboard into the upcoming ELM scheme.

It was a wonderful event, and I felt privileged to participate along with our Renter Warden, Chris Dyson, and our Junior Warden, Dr Stuart Le Sage, both of whom asked probing ‘Question Time’ questions during the debate!

Valerie Owen Le Vaillant OBE
Master, Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects.