Liz Truss has been accused of snubbing farmers after refusing to attend rural hustings hosted by the National Farmers’ Union.
Her leadership rival, Rishi Sunak, is due to address members of the National Farmers’ Union on Friday, but despite pleas from the president of the NFU, Truss has refused to attend.
The foreign secretary would probably have been asked about the accusations on Wednesday by the environment secretary, George Eustice, that she refused to enshrine animal welfare standards in trade deals.
The NFU’s president, Minette Batters, said it was a “shame” Truss did not want to attend the hustings, adding: “It doesn’t bode well – George Eustice has made his comments – you would think she would want to put her marker down.”
UK farmers have felt undercut by post-Brexit trade deals with other countries, which have threatened to hold agriculture abroad to lower standards than those that farmers at home are forced to comply with.
New Zealand farmers were delighted by the trade deal Truss signed, with a recent report on New Zealand news describing UK farmers as “sacrificial lambs”, because of the no-tariff imports agreed by the deal. It explained how the UK’s less intensive farming methods could mean they are soon outpriced by New Zealand.
Truss’s team said she “cannot turn up to everything” and was making an effort to speak to tens of thousands of Conservative members across the UK.
However, Batters said the recent drought and cost of living crises meant it was more important than ever that Truss spoke to farmers. She hoped that even though Truss was missing the organised hustings this Friday, she would meet farmers in coming weeks to discuss rural policy.
She said: “I have offered to meet her anywhere. I’ve offered to do it virtually, we aren’t tied to any location or anything. But it doesn’t look likely. It’s disappointing, as it’s not just about farming – food is such a critical subject, water is so critical to everybody, especially at the moment.”
Sunak is expected to lay out his farming plan to NFU members, and his team said that protecting British farmers in trade deals would be at the forefront of any of his policies. They said he would “support farmers in all future UK trade deals, taking time to get the trade deals right, rather than rushing them through to meet artificial self-imposed deadlines”, which could be read as a pointed jab at his opponent.
He has also promised to maintain and boost domestic food production through a UK food security target, and introduce a “buy local” target for the public sector, prioritising UK products over imports.
He has, however, come under fire from environmental campaigners by promising to “protect” land from solar panels and rewilding.