NFU president Peter Kendall has challenged DEFRA to promote competitiveness in farming and tackle over-regulation, to help the sector meet the challenge of increasing food production while addressing pressing environmental issues.
In an impassioned opening speech at Cereals 2009 delivered in front of new food and farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr Kendall said government should recognise agriculture as a potentially world-beating sector well placed to help lead the UK economy out of a hole.
Industries like biosciences and financial services had been highlighted by business secretary Lord Mandelson as areas of “industrial activism”, where government could play a key role in training and development and encourage “joined up policy” to create an environment for businesses to reach their full potential.
“The omission is agriculture,” said Mr Kendall. “Anyone walking around the Cereals event today would see that agriculture is absolutely critical to the UK economy’s success.
“The food sector is the biggest manufacturing sector in the economy. Last year, UK farmers grew £3.18bn-worth of cereals. The cereal sector is worth more than 5.6bn a year when you include processing. Exports alone are worth £1.4bn.”
Mr Kendall said some key challenges facing society needed to be highlighted to ensure government recognised farming’s potential role. “The government’s chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, talks frequently about the perfect storm by 2030 – of water shortages and the need to increase food production 21% in the next 30 years. Of food riots, and of global migration to better climates and to more reliable food supplies.
“That’s a phenomenal challenge for agriculture. We need to look at the science, we need to be at the forefront, with the right technology to deliver better crops, reduce pest and disease loss and improve irrigation. That’s a role for government to coordinate – we need intervention to bring together solutions.”
One area that government could help address immediately was set-aside. Mr Kendall said Natural England’s compulsory approach was alienating farmers and out of touch.
“We are miles ahead of Europe when it comes to producing more and impacting less – 65% of land is in some sort of environmental scheme. If Natural England wants that to continue, it should encourage and enthuse farmers to deliver. It’s going in the wrong direction – a change of attitude is needed.
“This is not a sector that wants to look backwards. It is up to the challenge of looking forward – to be competitive and efficient. All we need is the regulatory framework to help us do that.”