In her first major interview with the farming press, Liz Truss says she is determined to make her mark as Defra secretary. Johann Tasker asks the questions on CAP reform, bovine TB and flooding.
Q What do you hope to achieve as Defra secretary?
One of the things I am most passionate about is promoting British food – both for our own consumption and for export. And I want to do more to open up further markets.
What I want to do is build on a lot of the work Owen Paterson has done in terms of promoting competitiveness and promoting British food – to really expand that – not just to open markets overseas but also for our own domestic market.
The NFU published a report recently about self-sufficiency. I think we need to do more – we need to encourage people to eat British food and also increase our competitiveness and productivity as an industry.
Q Should we have a target for our self-sufficiency?
I don’t think that would be the right approach. I think the right approach is to look at the barriers stopping us from eating more of our own food. What is stopping our supermarkets from stocking more British food? What is hindering us in terms of competitiveness? Which sectors are more competitive than others and what can we learn from those that are most successful?
The Common Agricultural Policy is complicated. My aim as Defra secretary is to make things as simple as possible for farmers so they can do what they do best – which is producing food that is not just great tasting but helping all of us, it is helping our country’s economy.
Q You talk about simplicity – that you don’t want farmers to be form-fillers – and yet the complicated way you are implementing CAP reform is creating reams of paperwork.
There is no doubt that this is not the ideal scheme. And if it was up to us as a country, this is not what we would have chosen. That is absolutely true. But what we have to do is work within the parameters that have been set to make it as simple as possible given what has been agreed at a European level.
For example, on the three-crop rule, what I wanted to do is make the inspection window as short as we could and try to get as many exemptions and exceptions so people growing speciality crops wouldn’t see their businesses hurt by that inspection window.
I have also written to the commission asking for an urgent review of the three-crop rule. There is no doubt in my mind that we want farmers to produce the goods that consumers want to eat.
If you have arbitrary rules about which crops they have to grow, it makes it harder to do that. So I am going to be arguing our corner and saying that as soon as possible we need to review some of those rules because it is certain that they are making things more complicated.
Q But you are only one voice among 27 other countries. Just how much power do you have as Defra secretary to get things changed?
My understanding is that a lot of countries aren’t happy with the level of complexity of these rules. I will be looking for allies to make the case for simplification – for an early review of the crop diversification rules, which I think are particularly problematic. I will be looking for allies I can work with to achieve those goals. The CAP review is due to take place in 2016 and I want crop diversification to be part of that review.
Q Isn’t this just passing the buck? Saying it is all Europe’s fault – that we can’t do anything other than work within the parameters and challenge them?
That is where we are at the moment. I think Owen Paterson did a very good job of getting a better deal than the initial proposals, which were much worse. But I have got to continue to make them even better.
Q And will you also continue with Owen Paterson’s badger culls to control bovine TB?
I’m determined to follow through on that programme. We need to deal with the disease in the wildlife population in order to protect the long-term future of our beef and our dairy industries.
What we know from the experience of other countries is that we absolutely have to carry on with this programme. Doing nothing is not an option. What we saw between 1997 and 2010 is a tenfold increase in terms of the number of infected cattle.
Culling is one part of our overall strategy. We are also improving biosecurity and vaccinating badgers on the edge of the [disease] zone but we do have to carry on with our programme – I am absolutely clear about that.
We have learned the lessons from last year – in terms of improvements to the training programme and how we carry out the culls. But the evidence is very strong from countries such as Ireland and Australia that we do have to carry on.
Q And yet farmers outside the two pilot cull zones are still waiting. For them, nothing much has moved on in terms of tackling bovine TB in badgers
The whole point of these pilots is to show that it works. You don’t get instant evidence from something like that – it does take years to feed through. But we will work hard to show it works this year and that will provide the evidence for the future, which will enable us to take things further.
That is why it is so important to get it right this year. This has been a controversial issue. There has been a lot of public debate about it. Despite that, the coalition government has gone ahead with this programme.
Let’s be honest, the previous government did nothing from 1997 to 2010. Despite the protests we have gone ahead with this programme and I think people should bear that in mind.
Q What about a more targeted approach – taking out individual infected setts on farms rather than the blanket approach of culling 70% of all badgers across a much wider area?
There are all sorts of logistics and variables. But the reality is that, given the circumstances, what we are doing was the best possible way of doing it – and what we did last year and what we are going to be doing this year is working to show that it works.
Of course, we are constantly looking to improve the programme. That is why we are looking to vaccinate badgers on the edge of the zones. But what I would go back to is that in Australia, where they successfully eradicated TB, they achieved it by culling in the wildlife population.
Q You’ve already made a point of visiting the Somerset Levels, which were flooded earlier this year. How did you find work was progressing?
I went to see the dredging taking place. It is on time and on budget. I was very impressed with the progress that had been made on the Parrett and the Tone. We are looking at further work that might be done in Somerset.
It is very important – and I know this from my own constituency in south-west Norfolk – for local farmers and landowners working through internal drainage boards to work closely with the Environment Agency to come up with solutions that work.
That is one of the things I would like to achieve with Somerset. I have been to a meeting with the county council and the internal drainage board to discuss that and I hope we can make significant progress there.
We are looking at best practice models from around the country to make sure that all areas have that kind of support and engagement. To be fair to the Environment Agency, I think they have got better in terms of working with local communities and internal drainage boards.
Q Will there be a repeat of the floods this winter?
I don’t have a crystal ball – I am not a soothsayer. I can’t predict the weather but we need to make sure we are fully prepared. The dredging activity is very important and I am pleased it is taking place.
It is one of my main priorities to make sure we are well protected if the eventuality does occur. And we have increased the money we are spending on flood protection to £3.2bn because it is a priority and the climate is changing.
Q That is something you do accept?
I do accept that – absolutely. The climate is changing and we need to make sure we are adequately prepared and protected.