The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the National Farmers Union – 11 February 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the National Farmers Union in London on Tuesday 11th February 1992.


I am afraid, as you know, my visit here this morning is all too brief. Some weeks ago David asked me to drop in for a few minutes and I must say I found the invitation irresistible, irresistible even though John Gummer and David Curry will both be joining you today and tomorrow.

There were two reasons I found it irresistible. The first is that I have myself an agricultural constituency, arable, pigs, sheep, root crops, horticulture and a lot of farmers who tell me about the difficulties that you face. And secondly, and perhaps more relevantly, it is because I know at first hand what a difficult time farming is going through that I particularly wished to come here this morning. I do understand that and I know there are some things that need to be done before we can remove the present uncertainty and put farming on a sure course for the future.

After a number of good years some years ago, recent years have been difficult, poor indeed for many farmers, and it remains a difficult and uncertain situation today. And you are I believe dogged with some uncertainties. The two key issues are self-evident and they are not wholly within the remit of the United Kingdom government to solve.

The first vital issue for your future is the completion of the Uruguay Round as speedily, as comprehensively and as successfully as possible. And the second of course, after many years of talking, agitating, worrying, thinking, is the proper reform of the agricultural policy to be concluded at the earliest possible date.

Both those issues have to be resolved and they have to be resolved before we can answer the fundamental question that is put to me by my farmers week after week, and rightly so: what is the long-term future of farming? We cannot answer that question properly until we have the conclusions on the Uruguay Round, on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The United Kingdom government are working very hard both in front and behind the scenes to ensure we have the earliest possible completion of the Uruguay Round. I am disappointed frankly that we do not have it by now, I had hoped that we would. But a great deal of work is going on and I hope that we will get a satisfactory conclusion in the first half of this year.

Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is now squarely back in the middle of the community’s agenda and whatever progress may be made in the first half of the year no doubt we will welcome, but the United Kingdom has the Presidency of the European Community in the second half of this year and we will I hope be able to progress matters a good deal further then if there should be any first year delays.

Because some things are clear for farmers, it is difficult, it is going to remain difficult and there is going to be increased competition for agriculture in this country and right the way throughout the whole of the European Community.

Some weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending, for the first time, the Oxford Farming Conference and I took the opportunity then of describing the changes which I saw facing the industry and the reasons that underlie those changes.

I, in the few minutes I have this morning, have not the time to repeat everything I said on that occasion, but the central message remains the same, the central message remains that change in agriculture is as necessary as it is inevitable and you may say: “Why? We have continued evolving, but broadly with the same form of husbandry for a long time, why is it necessary?” And I think the answer to that is clear and is well understood by our industry in this country. It is because the present situation is simply not sustainable over the long-term. Consumers and tax-payers both spend a good deal more and more, and yet what happens to that? Farmers earn less and less, food is in surplus, trade is distorted, developing countries are damaged, the pressures on the environment increase and the costs grow out of all proportion to the benefits.

And so that system is no longer sustainable and it has to change. And if that is the case, as I believe it to be, then the sooner it changes the better so that the agricultural community can know the environment in which it is going to operate and adapt and make its plans accordingly. And that is what I wish to see happen as speedily as we can do it.

It was of course governments collectively who set up the Common Agricultural Policy and they did so for good reasons, in retrospect you can see why it was done and why it was done in the way that it was done, there were good reasons for that. The original rationale to conquer food shortages was an absolutely understandable rationale. But there is no possible justification today for an intervention system which, to take but one of many examples, takes so much prime British beef off the market that British retailers and caterers then have to import steak from Ireland – that is not a sensible way to have the system work.

So governments have their own responsibilities and I neither hide that from you, nor do I duck it. The governments collectively, I use the term in [Indistinct], the government collectively over so long has intervened so often and so much that it cannot wash its hands of the agricultural industry, and I can assure you we have no intention of washing our hands of the agricultural industry.

In both the GATT talks and the CAP discussions, we will be working hard for solutions which do not put an undue burden on our own farmers and on our own industry.

Why is it, despite all the excellence of farming itself, all the increased productivity and production which most industries would have given their eye teeth to have achieved in the last decade or two, why is it that agriculture is in its current difficulties? I think the answer to that is clear, because of policies which try to insulate it from the realities of the market. We cannot afford, in your interests, we cannot afford to make that mistake again.

I am not amongst those people who believe, quite wrongly, that farmers bask in a never never land of subsidies, that is not the agricultural industry that I see. I know that many of you here today, and many not here today, have seen their incomes decline in recent years, in some cases very sharply indeed. I know many hard pressed farmers who wonder how the market could possibly be harsher than the realities that they are facing today.

But the point is, and it cannot be ducked, the point is that agriculture has been a distorted market for decades and the best long-term answer for the future of agriculture lies in the reduction of those particular distortions. And as individual businessmen going through this period of change, farmers might usefully look at the experience of other industries as well. Every farmer is a businessman, he may be a farmer first but he is businessman as well if he is going to be successful.

So every farmer, like every other producer, needs to plan his enterprise, he needs to manage his production and he needs to market his goods. Britain is second to none for the technical efficiency of our farming production, but in many cases, not all, but alas in far too many, we have not yet got right the planning and the marketing that are so critical to commercial success for our own agricultural industry. And we cannot leave that where it is, we have to improve it.

Producing for the market is all about attention to detail and the catering industry, unlike many other sectors, often sells goods by number rather than by weight and it is actually rather important for a catering manager to know how many rashers he is going to get from a side of bacon and British supplies are too often too variable; too much has to be trimmed off and that means waste and loss and that is damaging to the producer who wishes to sell his products as well as for the caterer who wishes to buy them and I know that here amongst this audience and amongst farmers, supermarket buyers have a tough reputation and I think it is right, they are tough – it is their job to be tough – and some producers think they will get a fairer return by selling on the open market but those prepared to work to the supermarket specification will almost certainly do better on contract.

Food is a unique substance for many reasons. It may not be an expanding market either here or in the rest of the Community but it is a basic market, it is a broadly stable market, it is a market that increases in diversity, it is a market that increasingly wants better quality and better packaged and produced goods and there is beyond a shadow of doubt the scope for United Kingdom farmers to increase their market share here at home in our own domestic market and through exports abroad throughout the European Community and beyond but that is only going to happen if farmers adapt to producing for an increasingly competitive market.

We are going to find in the next few years – not just in agriculture but in every aspect of industry and commerce – that we are living in a more competitive future for our own products whatever they may be than any we have known in the past and those who succeed will be those who adapt and prepare and meet that competitive market head-on.

That is not a new message from me or indeed perhaps from others but is one about which I feel passionately and it was because of my concern over this that I held a seminar at Downing Street last November on precisely those issues and your President and daresay a number of other people here today were actually present on that occasion. It was a seminar that had a practical effect; it was with representatives of the farming industry, the food retail industry and the food manufacturing industry and the retailers and the manufacturers were quite clear about their need for consistent quality but they were also quite clear about what they could do to work together better with the agricultural industry. The larger supermarket purchasers of your products were quite prepared to commit themselves to helping farmers to meet their requirements, for example by seconding managers to help farmers organise themselves to supply the volume needed by retailers and manufacturers. They need a satisfactory volume; it may be necessary to work collectively from time to time to market to best economic effect that which you produce.

I have asked people to pursue those particular discussions and to pursue them rigorously. I have also asked everyone who attended that seminar to come back again next November – when I still expect to be there [Laughter] – to tell me what progress has been made. There is no point in us having seminars, reaching agreement, discussing all these problems if at the end of the day nothing practical is ever done [Applause] so at the end of that very agreeable seminar I said: “Thank you very much; that is very helpful. Come back next year and we will see how much has actually happened!” and I make that public now and I will be happy to ensure that we report back to you, for whom it matters as much as anyone, precisely what has happened.

We also recognised at that seminar that buying from domestic UK producers has advantages over and above cost and appearance and let me mention one that I think is important that we perhaps do not often stress enough and that is the Food Safety Act which is unique to the United Kingdom. I often wonder whether the same level of protection for the consumer can be assured when food is bought from elsewhere rather than in the United Kingdom. [Applause] We need to bring this point home to consumers who are worried about the quality of their food [Applause] I welcome without any reservation whatsoever the NFU’s own “Food From The Countryside” programme and I think your President is to be congratulated for bringing producers together with their customers and with those who can provide business advice. I hope that all the companies involved are going to benefit from that initiative.

But there is another aspect to current changes in agriculture that I touched upon briefly at the Oxford Farming Conference. Farmers have land. Often these days they have redundant buildings. They cannot afford in today’s climate to ignore those twin assets of land and redundant buildings but their best hopes of a return may be by using or selling them for non-agricultural purposes and at this point the farmer comes up against the planning rules [Hear! Hear!] I can see that he does! [Laughter] He may sometimes find this a frustrating experience. I do think understatement is sometimes a good thing!

There are no simple answers to planning. There are important and complex issues to be considered. It often involves striking a balance between numerous interests and a broad trade-off has to be made between meeting people’s needs for homes, for jobs, for services in rural areas and also preserving what is best in the countryside and the preservation of the countryside over the last two hundred years has essentially been in the hands of the agricultural industry and no-one should be able to get away with saying anything different on any occasion or on any platform [Applause] so we must preserve that delicate balance but see what can be done to assist the farmer.

The Government recently published guidance on the countryside and the rural economy and that sets out the principles on which planning decisions are to be based and there is more scope for a better understanding of what is actually involved in the planning process and that is why in March the Government will be holding a national conference bringing together planners, farmers and conservationists to discuss the issue and thereafter there will be local seminars all over the country for this is a difficult and impenetrable problem where we need the advice of everyone who is concerned about the countryside and the people who live in the countryside.

Planning, of course, is a form of regulation, a form of regulation which all businesses have to live with and other forms of regulation such as those concerned with food safety have a great impact on farming. Regulation involves cost. We cannot dismantle the controls needed to ensure high standards of safety nor would it be in our interest even to contemplate it but we can and will look hard at the mechanisms of regulation. There may be ways of securing the same standards through measures which impose less of a burden on farmers and if there is, we should examine them and then we should bring them into being.

Mr. President, in the few moments that I have been able to snatch out of your day on this occasion, I have not remotely been able to touch on all the important matters that are relevant to your [Indistinct].

I would in some ways be tempting to do so but I think it would equally be wrong to do so. we have to face it squarely if we are to reach the right decisions and that means sometimes that we must set out the uncomfortable aspects of change as well as the comfortable ones but having said that, let me conclude upon this point:

I want to make it clear to you that I am not pessimistic about the future of the agricultural industry; I am optimistic about the future of farming in the United Kingdom and optimistic for a series of practical reasons:

You have enormous resilience and adaptability and always have had in your industry. Market realities are not new to you; you have lived through difficult times and you have thrived again at the end of difficult times and I believe once again you will be able to do so.

And there is a further point that I see day by day in my own constituency and elsewhere and that is this: acre for acre, crop for crop and herd for herd, we still have the best farming industry in this country that you can find anywhere in the world so you can compete and the opportunities for us to do so are clearly going to be there.

I don’t see agriculture as a declining industry. I do see agriculture as a changing industry and we cannot hide the fact that change is both necessary and sometimes painful but as we come through that change you have a basis for prosperity in the agricultural industry that I think will irresistibly come to the fore. I cannot pretend that change will be cosy; I cannot pretend it will always be comfortable but it does present great opportunities for you. It is up to you as farmers, as businessmen, to take those opportunities. It is up to us, I believe, as Government, to help you to take those opportunities. Let me say to you clearly and unequivocally today that that is what we wish to do, to work with you for the future of the agricultural industry and I promise you that is what we shall do. [Applause].