A Labour government would seek a better trading relationship with the European Union for British farmers, Sir Keir Starmer has pledged.
Sir Keir told farmers at the NFU Conference on Tuesday (21 February) they 'deserve a government that listens' as the industry grapples with a series of challenges.
It comes as NFU President Minette Batters said that the 'clock is ticking' for British farming amid rising costs, worker shortages, the bird flu crisis and post-Brexit changes to support.
Sir Keir said that a Labour government would ensure that more was bought, made and sold in the UK to ensure the country was prepared for future challenges.
“That’s not protectionist. It’s the reality of delivering national resilience in this new era,” he told the NFU Conference.
The Labour leader added that his party would seek a 'better' trading relationship with the EU for British farmers.
"Everything in trade is up for negotiation – you can’t make cast iron guarantees," he said.
"But we are going to talk to our friends in the European Union, and we are going to seek a better trading relationship for British farming.
"We’re going to talk to them about a new veterinary agreement for agri-products, not just in Northern Ireland, and not just to fix the protocol – for the whole of the UK."
Sir Keir also pledged that a Labour government would ensure that 50% of the food bought by the public sector would be from British farmers.
"That is £1.2bn of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for peoples’ health, a clear target for every year we are in government.
"And 50% is just the minimum. We will do everything to go beyond it."
Echoing recent comments made by former MI5 Director General Baroness Manningham-Buller, Sir Keir said that “food security is national security”.
This means that farmers need business certainty, including on labour availability, rather than “sticking plaster politics”.
He told delegates: “Sometimes, because of the sheer breadth of farming’s contribution, we can lose sight of its ultimate goal. But we need sustainable food production.”
That was especially the case in a world fundamentally changed by the Ukraine war, but it didn’t mean environmental aspirations should be pushed too far down the pecking order. “You can have both,” he said.
In the conference's opening speech, NFU President Minette Batters warned that the 'time is nearly up' for the government to demonstrate its commitment to British farming.
"Not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do. I won’t let the opposition off the hook either, I believe the rural vote will be crucial in the next election."
She warned: “The clock is ticking. It’s ticking for those farmers and growers facing costs of production higher than the returns they get for their produce.
"It’s ticking for the country, as inflation remains stubbornly high, and the affordability and availability of food come under strain. It’s ticking for our planet, as climate change necessitates urgent, concerted action to reduce emissions and protect our environment.
"And it’s ticking for government – to start putting meaningful, tangible and effective meat on the bones of the commitments it has made."