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The National Farmers’ Union

A summary of the in-depth Ethical Consumer report into the National Farmers' Union, the English agribusiness lobby group. 

Soon after Ethical Consumer began campaigning against the badger cull, it became clear how central the National Farmers' Union (NFU) was to pushing the current cull forward. One of the striking things about the NFU is the degree to which it appears unconcerned about either scientific evidence or the opinions of the general public.[1]

Modern consumer-facing businesses, like most UK supermarkets and indeed many industry bodies, at least pretend to care about environmental and social issues. Not so the NFU, which appears to view the general public with disdain. We wanted to try to understand why this was, and so began researching it in 2015. 

Understanding the NFU

The National Farmers' Union of England and Wales is a registered employers' association for the farming industry. The NFU appears not to be widely known or understood, particularly outside of rural areas.

It has a long history and for a large part of this time its work was uncontentious and widely respected. However, as food production has globalised and the environmental movement has grown, consensus about how our food should be produced has broken down. Over the last 20 years, for environmental campaigners particularly, the NFU has developed a reputation of having hardened into an anti-environmental, free-market lobby group.

The often reliably rude George Monbiot has asked:

 "Is there any organisation as selfish, grasping and antisocial as the National Farmers' Union? Is there any organisation, except the banks, that secures so much public money for its members while offering so little in return?" [2]

And the more measured Guy Watson, a high-profile farmer from Riverford Organics, has said:

"I don’t feel represented by the NFU. In fact, I find myself increasingly alienated by their self-righteous lobbying for the short-term interests of a small number of large-scale farmers. This especially applies to their resistance ... to even the tamest environmental regulation; to public access to land; and to any redirection of farming subsidies to encourage younger, smaller-scale entrants to the industry." [3]

Image: Guy Watson riverford

The primary goal of our research was to understand the NFU and how this organisation has changed and why. This has not always been easy since much of what the NFU stands for appears baffling on the surface. Why would farmers, for example, want to oppose soil-erosion standards when this would appear to undermine their long-term future? [4]

The mists begin to clear with the realisation that its name is where the seeds of many misunderstandings first begin to germinate. This is because, as we go on to argue, the National Farmers' Union is not really national, not really farmers and not really a union. It is easier to understand it if we think of it, perhaps, as the 'English, agribusiness lobby-group'.

Not really National

Of the three words in its title, this is perhaps the easiest to challenge. In Scotland, there is the independent group NFU Scotland and in Northern Ireland there is the Ulster Farmers' Union. Although the NFU does have a NFU Cymru region, there is also a parallel, and independent, Farmers' Union of Wales.

Anecdotally, some of the biggest farms outside England might be members of both the NFU and the regional alternative but, by and large, they keep to their own patches. In the sense that we in the UK think of ourselves as being from Great Britain or the United Kingdom, the NFU is not really national. If we were to describe it more accurately we might be inclined to replace 'National' with 'English'.

Not really farmers

Challenging the use of the word 'farmers' in the NFU's name is a much more complex task, and one to which much of this report is directed. There are two main senses in which thinking of the NFU as 'Farmers' is confusing.

Not just farmers

In the interviews with farmers, which we conducted for our report, it is pretty clear that some of them feel that the main UK supermarkets are in some way members, or part of, or partnering with the NFU in a significant way. How else is it possible to make sense of the fact that, for example, in the early years of the campaigns for a supermarket ombudsman to protect suppliers from unfair pricing practices, the NFU was opposed to its establishment?[5]

We also looked in detail at the Red Tractor Scheme, a project which is jointly owned by the NFU, the supermarkets' own trade association the British Retail Consortium, and the representatives of other commercial entities.

The second concern we heard in our interviews is that pesticide manufacturers, such as Syngenta, are also in some way members, or part of, or partnering with the NFU.[6]  In the same way, for example, how else can we explain the NFU's vociferous opposition to restrictions on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides – despite the vital role that bees have in pollinating a whole range of crops that many farmers rely on commercially?[7] Or how can we explain the NFU's support for GM foods despite continued majority opposition from ordinary consumers?[8]  

In our report, we look in more detail at how the NFU is formally structured and it is clear that there are a range of different types of membership including Associate Members and Additional Members. The NFU chooses not to disclose who its corporate members are so it is not possible to be certain how formal these relationships with other food-related businesses are. A decision to be more transparent in this regard might be one way of addressing people's concerns in this area

Because of the idea that the NFU is lobbying on behalf of ‘not just farmers', if we were to describe it more accurately we might replace the word 'farmers' with 'agribusiness'.

Agribusiness has been previously defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN as "the collective business activities that are performed from farm to fork".[9] These would include agrochemicals, breeding, crop production (farming and contract farming), distribution, farm machinery, processing, and seed supply, as well as marketing and retail sales.

Not all farmers

A theme that runs throughout our report, and indeed an allegation that has long been laid at the door of the NFU, is that it doesn't really represent the interests of small farmers.

Indeed, many of its actions actually appear to work against the interests of smaller farmers. For example, its recent focus on promoting mega-dairies and giant pig farms could create new, and even lower-priced, competitors for small-scale milk and pork producers.[10]

 In addition, we looked at how its refusal to accept a cap on EU farm subsidies has contributed to a further concentration of land ownership, with bigger farmers, awash with cash they don't really need, outbidding the smaller farms nearby when land comes on the market.[11]

This approach, and its impact on smaller farmers since the 1970s, has led to the creation of a number of breakaway groups such as the Small Farms Association and the Family Farmers Association.

This is why we assert that the union is not really for 'all farmers'. Of course, the NFU does retain some small farmer members. Sometimes this is because of practical benefits like insurance, and sometimes it appears to be for less tangible reasons like social opportunities and social pressures. But from the evidence in this report it does appear that the majority of the NFU's lobbying supports the interests of the very largest farming businesses in the country, and particularly those which are focused on profit maximisation at all costs.

Not really a union

In the UK, the word 'union' is most commonly used to describe an association of workers created to help represent their collective interests in negotiations with their employer. The NFU, as a trade association or technically an employers' association is, in fact, the diametric opposite of a union of workers. 

Thinking of it as a union can also be confusing because, in another theme running through our report, there is a grumble from smaller farmers that the NFU is not a democratic union (in the sense of one member one vote). Like a company with bigger and smaller shareholders, both formal and informal influence in the NFU appears to be related to farm size.[12]

In the modern world, we would call this kind of entity a lobby group, a type of entity less favourably viewed in the public mind. Looking at the NFU as a lobby group is also useful because problems created by the power of corporate lobbying generally have become a field of study in their own right in the last 20 years or so.

Corporate lobby groups

"Public confidence in how policies are being formulated, and in whose interest, has been negatively affected by repeated incidences of opaque lobbying practices." [13] Transparency International.

Especially since the rise of economic globalisation in the 1980s, there has been growing concern about the excessive power and influence that corporate lobby groups appear to have in modern democratic societies.[14]  Much of this is simply down to resources. Successful for-profit corporations simply have more money than anyone else to hire lawyers, employ lobbyists, and fund think tanks to track and influence the direction and detail of public policy. 

Academics who study politics are adopting a new language of ‘corporate capture' or 'regulatory capture' of government departments, or even whole administrations, by private interests.[15]  A particular focus for campaigners in recent years, for example, has been the influence of coal- and oil-industry lobbyists around the ongoing international climate negotiations.

Image: FarmStart
Does the NFU represent the interests of small farms like Farmstart, where wanna-be farmers are given a ¼ acre plot to start their own enterprises?

So widespread has concern become over lobbying generally, that a number of formal transparency initiatives have been introduced. For example, the UK's now much-criticised 'Register of Consultant Lobbyists' was established in March 2015, and in Europe the voluntary (and also criticised) European Transparency Register was set up in 2011.

So into this new modern discourse about lobby groups we must fit the NFU. On its own website, the NFU seems almost proud of its early lobbying history:

"Charles Weller Kent was the NFU’s first Parliamentary Lobbyist, serving from 1913-16, and the first ever person to have 'lobbyist' in their job title."[16]  

And in its post-war relationship with the government, the NFU acted as a key element in the managed food production increases that were so essential at that time. Nearly 60 years on though, the NFU does appear to have hardened into a singularly anti-regulation and pro-profit-at-all-costs lobbyist.

The comment of one of our interviewees appeared to sum up the real position quite succinctly:

"We have an urban political elite. They don't know about farming. So they just delegate to the NFU."[17]

Solving the problem

In the short term, it appears that there are four avenues available to increase pressure on the NFU to take sustainable agriculture more seriously.

Recognising the NFU for what it is

As posted by a farmer in response to George Monbiot's 2013 denunciation above:

"If the NFU did not exist it would be necessary to invent it. I am as entitled to a trade body as the next man and I expect it to seek to further the interests of its members." [18]

It is, as we argue here, simply an English Agribusiness Lobby Group. It is ideologically focused on profit maximisation which reflects the interests of the biggest agribusiness firms in its membership.

In only one of the eighteen issues we looked at did its interests coincide with that of environmental groups. This was in the area of renewable energy where the presence of generous government incentives to install wind and solar generation capacity was met with much enthusiasm. In other words, the NFU in its current form only appears likely to respond positively to interventions which impact positively on the economic performance of its biggest members.

Organising outside the NFU

One obvious move for campaigners has been to set up rival unions of farmers but with a less extreme position towards environmental protection. This has now been tried more than once. Many such attempts have struggled – like the project in 2003.

Zac Goldsmith also tried backing 'Better NFU' which fielded more sympathetic candidates for NFU presidential elections.[19] This, apparently, did not end well either.

As one of our experts commented: "although farmers can be united in knowing what they don't want, they are less successful in agreeing what they do want." [20]  

Organisations working more broadly around sustainable agriculture have fared much better with a big increase in interest in alternative approaches such as local food delivery schemes.  

For example, the Landworkers’ Alliance, a network and union of small and family farmers, is seeing a growing membership, as is the Farming Community Network. And the annual 'Oxford Real Farming Conference’, which runs at the same time as the more mainstream Oxford Farming Conference, is now famous for attracting more people. 

Making sure its stakeholders know what it is

As we mentioned above, thinking of the NFU as 'the English Agribusiness Lobby group' will help develop a better understanding of where the organisation currently is.

DEFRA/the Government

It is clear from our research that DEFRA's consultations with the NFU outnumber those for all other organisations. As one expert pointed out in our interviews:

"Government shouldn’t only talk to the NFU and think they’ve heard the voice of farmers – the blame lies with the Government as much as the NFU." [21]

No doubt DEFRA will need reminding that, with the NFU, it is only possible currently to get the perspective of an English Agribusiness Lobby Group – a group that currently seeks to pass costs on to the rest of society by undermining protection for other interests. Reminding DEFRA of this fact is one purpose of our report.

The press and other media

For those elements of the media that still seek objective or balanced reporting, it is important to communicate to them that the NFU will only give the perspective of English agribusiness companies rather than farmers as a whole. This is particularly the case with the BBC whose coverage of rural issues remains extensive. Reminding the BBC of this fact is another purpose of our report.

Current farmer members

One of the surprising results of our research was discovering how many small farmers were still – albeit discontented – members of the NFU. We hope that some of the detail in this report will encourage a reassessment of whether an English Agribusiness Lobby Group which actively works against their economic interests is really what they want to be supporting. Research on the NFU's lobbying around farm subsidies in this regard makes particularly chilling reading.

Exploring the role of external pressure

One of the striking things about the NFU, as we have mentioned above, is the degree to which it appears unconcerned about the opinions of the general public – given that they are the ultimate customers of their members' products. Generally, consumers are opposed to, for example, GM foods, the badger cull and bee-harming pesticides. More directly consumer-facing businesses are much more circumspect about pushing ahead with such controversial activities no matter how wrong they think their opponents are.

The experience of campaigning against lobby groups opposed to action on climate change has revealed that high-profile brands in particular are vulnerable to being 'outed' as members of such groups. Apple, for example, was just one of a number of companies which publicly left the US Chamber of Commerce in 2009 over its lobbying against climate legislation.[22] Ethical investors have also been particularly active in this space, challenging lobby-group membership with some success.[23]

There are perhaps fewer high-profile farming brands supplying direct to the UK consumer which might be affected by public demands for them to re-evaluate their membership, because the supermarkets play such a major role in branding their own suppliers. But it remains an avenue that might be worth exploring.

And the NFU does have two consumer-facing brands with which it enjoys close relationships: NFU Mutual and the Red Tractor scheme. Linking the NFU with the badger cull, though the use of cartoon interpretations of a demonic red tractor, is one project we have planned for 2017. If you have graphic skills or are fired with righteous anger, why not send in your own ideas? Email us at

Our report ends with a short review of different perspectives on the global food system, illustrating that the big business and cheap food approach favoured by the NFU is just one of many possible futures available.

Image: NFU cartoon

Downloading the report

It is freely available to download as a PDF (150 pages). The core of our report is broken down into four sections:

  • Economic Lobbying – undermining the smaller farmer
  • Environmental Lobbying – unconcerned about sustainability
  • Animal interventions – keeping protection to a minimum
  • Social Lobbying – passing costs on to the rest of us. 

Download the NFU Report now >


  1. The government’s own ‘Krebs’ trial found the culling of badgers to be ineffective at controlling TB in cattle 
  2. Guardian. The National Farmers’ Union secures so much public cash yet gives nothing back, George Monbiot July13th 2013 
  4. See section 3.2 below.
  5. See section 2.3
  6. See e.g. 
  7. See section 3.1
  8. See section 5.4
  10. See section 4.1 below.
  11. See section 2.1 below.
  12. See section 6.2
  14. See e.g. Who Will Tell the People by William Greider 1992, or Captive State by George Monbiot 2000 
  15. Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler is commonly associated with ideas of regulatory capture 
  17. Peter Riley – interviewed in 2015 
  20. John Turner – interviewed in 2015 
  21. John Breach – interviewed in 2015

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