DEFRA secretary David Miliband sets farming five challenges at Oxford Farming Conference

DEFRA secretary David Miliband has set the industry five challenges as a precursor to a profitable future.

Addressing the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday (3 January) he first urged farmers to consolidate and co-operate more.

“Big is not necessarily beautiful, but small is vulnerable,” he said, citing the example of KG Fruits, which had started with seven farmers and grown to the biggest specialist soft fruit co-operative in the UK.

Second, he challenged farmers to move further up the value chain. “I applaud the actions of supermarkets like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer who are developing long term contracts, but equally the industry needs to find ways to create more value.”

Next, Mr Miliband called on farmers to diversify into new sectors and to innovate.

This could be into traditional sectors, such as beef genetics. But they should also look at new products, particularly in the environmental field, such as energy, water and carbon.

Fourth, farmers should be looking to differentiate their products and reconnect with consumers. “The market in local, seasonal and organic produce is set to grow,” said Mr Miliband. “As well as addressing consumer choice, organic production also delivers well-demonstrated environmental benefits.”

Finally the DEFRA secretary urged farmers to see climate change as an opportunity, not just a threat. The UK could become the leader in “green farming” techniques and in meeting the inevitable demand for bio-fuels and other renewable energy sources.

But, as well as farmer’s having responsibilities, so too did government, in terms of delivering a policy framework that encouraged innovation and investment.

In particular, Mr Miliband pointed to the need for better regulation and an end to gold-plating of legislation. “We need to deliver on the agreed plans for regulatory change that will contribute about £30m estimated savings.”

There was also a need for a new debate about planning and land use, particularly in relation to development of the green belt.

Government also needed to support the farming industry in developing the requisite skills for the agricultural industry of tomorrow. And it had a key role to play in the area of public procurement. “Public bodies need to be intelligent consumers,” he said.

Mr Miliband also promised to “look closely” at ways of incentivising farmers to help in the fight against global warming and expressed a willingness to tackle competitive distortion against UK farmers, though within the context of further CAP reform.

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