Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

Farmers urge focus on food policy

A sow with her piglets at a market
The NFU says farming was part of the UK's biggest manufacturing industry

Farming leaders have called on the government to do more to put the industry "at the heart of the economy".

Ahead of the National Farmers' Union annual conference, its president said the view that a smaller industry would pose less risk was "regrettable".

Peter Kendall said such an attitude had been influenced by BSE and foot-and-mouth outbreaks.

He said the challenge for farmers in future was to produce more, but with less impact on the environment.

'Produce more'

Mr Kendall was speaking ahead of the NFU's two-day conference in Birmingham, which starts on Monday.

He said farming and food production was the biggest manufacturing industry in the UK.

He said: "The challenge for the future, with all the global dynamics now such as population, dietary changes, impacts of climate change, water scarcity, the challenge of renewables from the land is that we must produce more but impact less."

He urged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to introduce targets for food production and said he would be asking ministers to "work with us to help farming take a more central role in the economy."

We need to get the farmers of tomorrow interested and involved with the industry
Hilary Benn
Environment Secretary

He warned against unnecessary bureaucracy, saying there was a danger of using "a sledge-hammer to crack a nut", if measures like electronic tagging of sheep were introduced, or set-aside - the practice of paying famers to leave some of their land untouched - was brought back.

But he said the payments which are given to hill farmers who manage the land for environmental benefits, were a "sensible compromise".

"These areas are often pretty inhospitable, where farming is challenging but maintains a fantastic landscape for tourism and recreation, which would revert to scrub without farming," he said.

'Real urgency'

The Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, will be attending the conference and is expected to praise the resilience of the farming sector and push for an investment in skills to ensure it stays strong.

"As we look to the future, we need to get the farmers of tomorrow interested and involved with the industry, and to improve the skills of today's farmers to deal with new technologies like anaerobic digestion and meet new challenges like climate change," he is expected to say.

"I will be convening an industry round table, bringing in colleagues from across the farming industry and from agricultural colleges, to overcome these problems, and to inject some real urgency into our efforts to improve skills in the sector."

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