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Norfolk Farming Conference debates food security and trade

Norfolk's farming industry is "hurting" under the weight of soaring costs, disease threats and financial uncertainty - so government and supermarkets must do more to help struggling food businesses survive.

Labour's shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner speaking at the Norfolk Farming Conference (Image: RNAA)

That was a key message from the Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought more than 400 farmers and industry professionals to the Norfolk Showground.


They were told that rampant cost inflation for farm businesses currently stood at 33pc - driven by inputs including fertilisers, animal feed, transport and energy.


At the same time, East Anglia's poultry sector is battling its worst-ever outbreak of bird flu, pig farmers have been losing an estimated £30 per animal due to high costs and processing backlogs, and some arable growers are reviewing their planting strategies.


It all comes amid continued financial uncertainties over the government's new system of environmental payments, due to replace EU subsidies which are already being phased out after Brexit.


Farmers have called for greater clarity from ministers and fairer prices from retailers to ensure the future viability of their industry.


And shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner, the keynote conference speaker on Wednesday, said the scale of the problems and the importance of the food industry meant government intervention may be necessary to address an "imbalance of power" in the supply chain.


The Cambridge MP said: "What I hear in general is that farming is hurting, and anxious about the future.


"Here in Norfolk there is understandable and particular anxiety about avian flu.


"But we should not let avian flu be used as a cover for longer-term problems. Back in spring, egg suppliers were warning retailers that costs were running way ahead of prices.


"And there are many other issues. While there may be good prices in some markets, there is still no respite if you are a pig farmer. Producers are still losing £30 per pig, and that has been the case for nearly two years. We have lost nearly 20pc of the national sow herd, with many people only just hanging on.


"And of course for growers, the NFU (National Farmers' Union) published a report a couple of weeks ago, showing that many are now walking away from contracts, cutting production by as much as 20pc.


"The imbalance of power within the food system needs to be tackled, and that is recognised throughout the food chain."


The Labour MP said there is a "fundamental difference of view between the government and the opposition" on the subject of market intervention.


"The question is, do you just leave it to the market, or do you use the tools available to you to intervene?" he said.


The 2022 Norfolk Farming Conference was held at the Norfolk Showground (Image: RNAA)

"I don't think it will come as any surprise to you that I and a Labour government are more likely to be interventionist."


He added: "It is a pretty big philosophical question, the extent to which you intervene in markets, but if our food security is at risk, then it seems to me there is a role for government."


Asked if that meant price support for struggling sectors, he said: "I can't say that at this point. What I would say is that when we see sectors that need support and intervention, I think we are far more likely to be sympathetic to that view and use the tools available to government already, but I don't think I can go much further than that."


Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the NFU, said industry surveys showed many sectors were "looking at reducing production", and the shortages of eggs on supermarket shelves in recent days was evidence of the impact of "unthinkable" cost inflation - but without a corresponding rise in prices paid to farmers.


"The ability to pass on these cost increases through the supply chains has been incredibly challenging, from pork to poultry to horticulture," he said.


"I know the retailers are saying they are trying to stop consumer inflation, and that is a very noble ambition.


"But at a time of global crisis, a global food production challenge, if we don't put our arms around the supply chain and make sure that these businesses are able to produce next year and the year after, then there will be no food availability, there will be restrictions on supply, and that will drive inflation further."


The Norfolk Farming Conference - where Defra declined to send a government minister - also debated topics including post-Brexit trade, environmental sustainability, water use and flood mitigation.


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