CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY, prioritising food security and producing food of the highest quality is taking UK agriculture to a bright future and a growth rate similar to that immediately after the Second World War, the government’s food, farming and fisheries minister has told an audience of farmers, advisers and food producers.
“We are the holders of the baton in our sector,” MP Mark Spencer said. He and his government colleagues believe the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Sustainable Farming Incentive, Capital Grants and landscape recovery strategy are key to UK farming’s development.
He was speaking ahead of a food summit held in Downing Street last month to thrash out future support for food production. Mr Spencer pictured above with Richard Fuller, MP for North East Bedfordshire was confident that it would result in a huge step forward with food production and food security as a priority, tackling concerns about the lack of clarity on the future of Environmental Land Management Schemes and considering how to incentivise British farmers.
Delivering the annual lecture at Shuttleworth College near Old Warden, Mr Spencer said: “It is not always people but events that drive innovation in agriculture. World War II drove huge innovation with the government solely focused on winning the war, which included feeding the nation. This policy led us to feeding the whole of Europe, which we did quite successfully for 80 years.”
Now the UK faces post-pandemic challenges, those created by the war in Ukraine and the ongoing climate crisis. “The government at the time was focused wholly and laser-like on the need to feed and I wonder what historians will look back on and think for 2022/23 will we take on the challenges that we face in the same way?”
Mr Spencer was back on his old stomping ground and the Shuttleworth College alumnus took part in 90 minutes of frank discussions about the future of the sector. “This is not an easy challenge as many of the best solutions to each of those three challenges to food security are diametrically opposed,” he said. “But we believe in government that we have four key tools in the box – Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Sustainable Farming Incentive, Capital Grants and landscape recovery. We also have the highest quality beef and lamb in the world and that is something we really need to get better at shouting about.”
Mr Spencer and Mr Fuller are pictured with Dr Catherine Lloyd, vice principal at Shuttleworth College.
EEAS member Amelia Rome, an arable farmer and farm business consultant, told the minister that the industry needs good infrastructure and government support in meeting the challenges of feeding the UK population and tackling climate change. “I do not want handouts; I want your help to get the competitive edge in a commodity-led industry,” she said.
Mr Spencer was asked to address rebalancing the power dynamic between growers, producers and the retailers.
“Retailers may well say they want year-round British supply of cucumbers for example, and the end customer values that British quality too but we need to work on making both retailers and consumers understand that quality comes at a premium price,” he said.
Mr Spencer encouraged the agriculture sector to take back some responsibility for marketing the strength of their produce to their communities. “As a sector we have devolved communication of what we do to a third party. We were so busy as a sector growing food post-war that we did not do it ourselves – we trusted the retailers,” he said. “But we can all do our bit as a sector.”
Farmers can play a part in improving the sector’s image by visiting schools and community groups, Mr Spencer added.
“Consumers do want to engage if you try. We have to explain to people why we do the thing we do and that includes on social media. If you see a post in your local Facebook group complaining about the smell of manure spreading, respond in an informative way just why you are spreading organic manure, to reduce reliance on chemical fertiliser, etc. There is a lot of misunderstanding of the sector and we can do a lot to address that.”
Mr Spencer confirmed that even with the winding down of the Basic Payment Scheme, the government is committed to continuing to spend an annual budget of £2.4 billion on agriculture, with more options for the Sustainable Farming Incentive on the table.
Thanking Mr Spencer for delivering the lecture, EEAS chairman Charlie Reynolds said: “It is always a really well-attended event and one that is important to us as an Agricultural Society, giving a platform to farmers and food producers in the East of England with the DEFRA Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries. I thank all of those who challenged the Minister with some strong and important questions and for the frank responses that Mr Spencer duly gave.”