Oxford Farming Conference: Food and farming sector ‘is embracing future’ says Environment Secretary Liz Truss

Environment Secretary Liz Truss (centre) addresses delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference. Left

Environment Secretary Liz Truss (centre) addresses delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference. Left is NIAB chief executive Tiny Barsby and conference chairman Richard Whitlock is right. - Credit: Archant

No ambition is too high for British food and farming, Environment Secretary Liz Truss told the Oxford Farming Conference this week - even when it comes to wine-making.

Addressing delegates on Wednesday, the south west Norfolk MP gave a positive and upbeat assessment of the industry, pointing out that over recent months, “fresh evidence” had emerged showing why it was right to be “both ambitious and optimistic” for the sector.

“Sales of English and Welsh wine are on course to break the £100million barrier this year, two thirds of it sparkling as our confident producers take the Australians, French and Italians on at what was their own game,” she said. ?

“Beer exports are also breaking records, with more than a billion pints of beer sold abroad for the first time. That means growing demand from brewers for high-quality British barley and hops.”

Strawberry growers were now supplying two thirds of the domestic market, thanks to modern indoor-growing techniques, while British cherry growers had adopted a “can-do approach”, doubling their crop last year.

“Analysis carried out by DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) shows that the economy of rural Britain, powered by food and farming, could be as productive as towns within 10 years.

“We have the land, the technology, the entrepreneurial flair – and above all the fantastic food – to lead the world. Farming is no sunset industry cut off from the modern mainstream.

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“It is a hi-tech powerhouse, a sunrise industry. It is at the heart of our long-term economic plan, and it is vital to our country’s future security.”

Farmers were no longer cut off behind their farm gates, but increasingly working with manufacturers, retailers and scientists for a food chain worth more than £100billion to the British economy.

“I recognise there are challenges. I understand that many dairy farmers are feeling the pressure when there’s been such a steep drop from the 33.8 pence per litre seen at the start of last year to prices now quoted in the low twenties in some cases,” she said.

“We will continue to face a difficult global market in the coming months. But we want to make sure the hard-working farmers in this industry are able to withstand as far as possible the immediate effects and also to have the resilience to handle volatility in the longer term.”

But despite the setbacks, what she wanted was for our dairy industry to be “number one in the word”, she said. Dairy sales abroad are up 60% since 2009, she pointed out.

There were also “huge opportunities” for British food producers to sell more here in the UK, she said.

“Currently just 60% of the food we eat is produced here, down from 74% 20 years ago. The NFU has played a leading role in highlighting this. We know consumers want to buy British because it is local, because it is seasonal and because it is tasty,” she said. The Government was making it easier for schools, hospitals and canteens to buy high quality local food rather than to go for the cheapest price on the day, she said.

“We are not going to be fully self-sufficient. Of course, we haven’t been for hundreds of years. Although we do now grow chillies which we export to Pakistan and Mexico. And to the envy of France, we produce award-winning sparkling wines. Growing and selling more British food in this country matters. It matters because food and farming employs one in eight people. It matters because food is our biggest manufacturing industry. And it matters because 70% of our landscape is shaped by farming,” she said. From April, pork, lamb and poultry will have to show the country where it was reared and slaughtered, but Ms Truss said she also wanted more promotion of local and regional food.

“Currently, 62 products in Britain benefit from this status, ranging from Cornish Pasties to Orkney Lamb and Fenland Celery. I had a great opportunity to go on a celery rig last year and see it all happening in real life. But that compares with 219 from France. We’ve got another 30 products applying and I would like to see lots more,” she said.

Disease control was high on the Government’s agenda, and it is focused on eradicating bovine TB by 2038. Red tape was another area being addressed, she said.

“I want farmers farming not form filling,” she explained.

She added: “Food and farming is embracing the future - but at the same time it is, like the rest of the country, rediscovering our great food heritage.”