Britain’s biggest food trade mission to China could mean big benefits for UK farmers, claims DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson. Johann Tasker caught up with him before he left.
What sort of export potential are we looking at here?
I think it is absolutely enormous. When I went to Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1980s I remember there was real antipathy to dairy products. I remember sitting eating toast and butter in Tapei and a woman sneered at me saying, ‘I just can’t believe you Westerners can eat that stuff’. That attitude has completely changed.
There is a whole cultural shift in China – there is a real interest in added-value foods, traceable foods and quality foods. We know, for instance, in dairy foods that the New Zealanders and other European countries are in there. There is a massive opportunity for us to get high value, quality, branded products into China as the demand for proteins increases.
Other than the language, what are main barriers to business?
This is one of the points of going. This is a completely exploratory trip. We are going there and we will find out whether the barriers are branding or marketing or whether maybe there are problems with health regulation, for example. There may be misconceptions or stereotypes – we are going there and we will gather an awful lot of information within a week.
- Tea – Teapigs, Imporient, Pukka Herbs
- Milk – Trioni
- Cheese – Somerdale
- Dairy – DairyCo
- Cereals – Good Carb
- Beer – Celt Experience
- Confectionary – Spencer & Fleetwood
- Nuts – New York Delhi
- Bakery – Maclean’s Highlands Bakery
- Vegetarian – Suma
- Fish – Severn & Wye Smokery
- Gift Boxes – Kimm & Miller
We are going to see Marks & Spencer – one of Britain’s leading and most successful food retailers – and we will pick up on the ground exactly what they have learned from the local market. And then we will come back and hold a dairy summit at the end of January, when we will assess all the information we have picked up and decide what the next steps are.
But I am just convinced there is a massive opportunity if we get our act together with the help of a variety of businesses. We are taking not just dairy companies, we are taking other companies too, including an eel business from the River Severn and even a tea company, which I think is really splendid – selling tea to China.
I was going to ask you about that – isn’t it like taking coals to Newcastle?
If a British company can sell tea to China then good for them. We are taking about 14 different companies. I genuinely don’t know what we will find – we will just get a feel for it. I just know that there are tremendous opportunities because of the extraordinary increase in prosperity in China and a massive population creating new levels of wealth and demand for high quality, protein food.
Do you genuinely believe UK farmers will benefit? Or will the main beneficiaries be the food companies and processors that add value to agricultural commodities?
I have been completely clear – there is no future in farming just to produce a commodity. We have got to add value. Of the 12bn litres of milk we produce, 6bn litres are still sold in liquid form. There are tremendous opportunities to add value to that.
We have a £1.2bn deficit in dairy products – that can be turned around if we add value. We need more processing here, we need more added value. That is the only way to get the milk price up.
A trade mission by former farm minister Jim Paice earlier this year resulted in a deal said to be worth £50m a year for British pig producers. Do you have anything similar in the pipeline?
I think he did brilliantly well and it had a real resonance back here. It shows what is possible. This is more of an exploratory trip. Nothing has been teed up in advance. We are genuinely going to see what the opportunities are, to see what the obstacles are and to see how we can develop things further.