New Defra Secretary Ranil Jayawardena believes UK farmers should not be confused by food imports as they can sell their high-value produce to more lucrative overseas markets, according to farmers who recently met him.
The Tory MP for North East Hampshire replaced George Eustice in new Prime Minister Liz Truss’ cabinet reshuffle this week.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Victoria Prentis has become Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions.
See also: Ranil Jayawardena announced as new Defra secretary
A former banker, Mr Jayawardena had worked with Ms Truss at the Department for International Trade, where he had been a minister since May 2020, and he shares her belief in the free market.
UK farmers are seriously concerned that free trade deals signed with countries like Australia, New Zealand and others could trigger a flood of cheap food imports that would threaten their own livelihoods.
Mr Jayawardena met farmers from his North Hampshire constituency on August 18 at Joe Ives’ dairy farm in Herriard, near Basingstoke, at a meeting organized by the NFU.
The MP shared his views with farmers on the potential impact of free trade deals on UK farming and other issues.
Reflecting on the meeting, Mr Ives said: ‘The impression I got was that if cheaper food came to fill a market here, British farmers could export their higher value agricultural produce to other overseas markets where the market is better. .
“But it would be up to individuals and industry to initiate – supported by government.”
“Want to engage”
Mr Ives said weekly farmers he came away “very encouraged” by his meeting with the MP, who wanted to get involved and listen to the concerns of farmers.
“He was very keen to get our opinion on where agriculture is and where it’s going,” Mr Ives said. “We discussed food security, SFI and ELM, campaign management, funding issues, trade deals and other challenges including reseeding and cultivation.
“Some farmers were outspoken, honest and strong in their opinions. He was very genuine. I didn’t feel like he was whitewashing us.
Farmer Tom Janaway described Mr Jayawardena as ‘a really nice, likeable guy’ who tried hard to understand the issues in UK farming.
His MP was very open about his beliefs in the free market, he said. “He’s a big believer in British food, but he certainly doesn’t necessarily believe in British food for Brits only.”
Mr Jayawardena posted a video of the recent meeting on Facebook and said he was privileged to be appointed Defra Secretary.
“From food security and support for UK farmers to water security and growing our rural economy, I know there is a lot to do,” he said.
“We will deliver a thriving UK food industry, a cleaner environment and a growing economy, maximizing the benefits of Brexit.”
NFU President Minette Batters congratulated Mr Jayawardena on his appointment and said she “looked forward to working with him to ensure that UK food and farming can continue to thrive and supply the nation of high-quality, climate-friendly British food”.