Farming chief’s fury after government aide says industry isn’t ‘important’ to UK

The head of the National Farmers' Union lashed out today at a government aide who said the industry isn't "critically important".

NFU president Minette Batters said the comments were "completely out of touch" after the Treasury advisor said Britain could simply import its food like Singapore.

Dr Tim Leunig, an economic advisor to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, made the shock comments in personal e-mails obtained by the Mail on Sunday.

His messages to the National Food Strategy said the food sector isn't "critically important" to the UK, and agriculture and fish production "certainly isn't".

He added: "All I am saying is that, as a logical possibility, a nation or region can import stuff. We see that in many places for many goods and services. Singapore imports (almost) all its food."

Dr Leunig also co-authored a 2008 report that called for all 3million planned new homes to be built in three southern cities – and appeared to suggest leaving Liverpool, Bradford and other northern cities to managed decline.

Ms Batters today blasted the comments – which emerged as British farmers fear they will be sold out over standards or exports in a post-Brexit trade deal.

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The NFU chief told Sky News comparisons with Singapore are “just completely out of touch with where this country is”.

“Singapore has 5million people and doesn’t have any farmed landscape,” she said. "Here 75% of Britain is a farmed landscape, we have a fantastic maritime climate in which to produce our food, and we have 60 million-plus people here to feed.

“There is a moral imperative for us to be able to produce food here in this country.”

She added: “Farms are the backbone of rural Britain. Surely the last thing we want to go to is importing cheaper raw ingredients produced to lower standards. We export our conscience and our production.”

Asked if she was concerned farmers will be “sold down the river” in Brexit trade talks, she replied: “Of course we’re concerned – I’ve been talking about nothing else for the last three years.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice has said the UK could change the law to allow chicken to be washed in lactic acid, like beef is already.

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Ms Batters said: “This surely is the chance to lead, be on the world stage driving standards and integrity forwards – not going back to the dark ages, undermining our farmers and ultimately putting them out of business.”

The Government distanced itself from the comments made by the Treasury adviser.

A spokesman said: "We have made clear the comments are not in line with Government policy."

Sources told the PA news agency that the remarks were made in personal emails and that Dr Leunig was not speaking in his Treasury role.

The agriculture and fishing sectors represent fewer than 1% of the UK's economy respectively.

But rural and coastal communities voted Leave in large numbers during the 2016 referendum – whe campaigners argued farmers and fishermen would would be better off free of EU rules.

Food standards have proved to be a dominating issue as negotiators prepare for trade talks with their US counterparts – which a clash over fisheries due to start formally on Tuesday.

Last week, Environment Secretary George Eustice came in for criticism after he refused to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being imported from the US as part of a trade agreement with Washington.

Allowing such treated and often cheaper foods into the UK could undermine British farmers who operate to higher standards.

Fishermen also fear promises made to them on increased catch quotas and controlling who fishes in British waters could be traded in exchange for market access during the talks with the EU, which are due to begin next week.

Brussels has made clear it wants little to change in terms of access for European boats and quota allocation once the transition period is over in December.

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Dr Leunig's comments would not be the first time a Government figure has managed to upset UK industry.

Boris Johnson is said to have made controversial comments on the topic of Brexit , having reportedly said "f*** business" when questioned about the sector's concerns over a no-deal exit from the EU in 2018.

Treasury adviser and academic Dr Leunig is said to be close to Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister's chief adviser in Downing Street.

Mr Cummings has called for "weirdos and misfits" to join the civil service in a bid to break the mould of current Whitehall thinking.

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