Owen Paterson – 2012 Speech to the Women's Institute Food Event


Below is the text of a speech made in December 2012 by the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, to the Women’s Institute Food Event.

I want to start by thanking the Women’s Institute for inviting me to speak. I enjoy coming to events outside of London and getting a broader perspective on the issues that my department deals with.

The history of the Women’s Institute makes it particularly fitting that the WI should be playing a major part in the debate of food security.

The WI were set up in Britain in 1915 and promptly got on with helping women get involved in food production in the First World War.

Then in the Second World War the WI played a key role on the Home Front growing and preserving over five thousand tonnes of fruit between 1940 and 1945, which otherwise would have been wasted.

With all the practical experience the WI are bringing to the problem and their partnership with the Institute of Public Policy Research, I am sure the WI’s report will be a valuable addition to the food security debate.

By 2050 we’re expecting the world’s population to hit 9 billion. That’s 9 billion mouths to feed in a world with increasing competition for land, water and energy.  We may need as much as a 70% global increase in food by 2050. Before we get depressed by this, let’s celebrate the fact that technology has dramatically improved our ability to feed ourselves.

The World’s population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to just over 7 billion today. New technologies for food and agriculture are helping us to keep pace with the growing population. As the WI set out in their report, between 1967 and 2007 crop yields increased by 115 per cent but land use only increased by eight per cent. Indur Goklany has calculated that if we tried to support today’s population using the methods of the 1950s, instead of farming 38% of all land, we would need to use 82%.

There is still a massive challenge but also an exciting opportunity to rethink the way our food production works. This is a chance for us all to improve food production from farm to fork. Technology and innovation will help us to increase production while improving the environment.

The UK is already a world leader in food security issues. In 2011 we published the Foresight report, which set out how to deal with growing world population and changing climate. I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, for her work on this and thank her for her achievements.

The Prime Minister gave me clear instructions upon my appointment. I need to find ways to increase growth while improving the environment – the two are not mutually exclusive. The work the Government is currently doing on food production and food security is a key part of making this happen.

One of my first events was a meeting at No 10 with farmers, producers, distributors and exporters.  I understand that Government needs to work in partnership with industry.

The Green Food Project is looking at how to produce more food while simultaneously improving the environment. We’re working with partners from across the food supply chain, from farmers to retailers, to develop solutions that ensure UK food security. We need to design and implement policy that works for businesses, consumers and the environment.

Innovation has a key role to play in food security. There are some really innovative businesses like Intake Farm in Skipton that introduced a bedding recovery unit using money from a Rural Development Grant. This will save them thousands of pounds a year and reduce the risk of lameness in their livestock.

I am currently working with David Willetts, the Science Minister, on the Life Sciences Agri-Tech Strategy to help encourage innovation and new technologies. We want to use the UK’s world class science base to increase the competitiveness of the agricultural sector. We need to be able to translate research into new products, processes and technologies, and this should include serious consideration of GM. In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares. That’s 11% of the world’s arable land.

The Agri-Tech Strategy will build on the world leading scientific expertise in the UK. The Government invests £400million in agri-food R&D. We need the best research, technology and knowledge transfer that we can get.  An inspiring example is the Driffield based Beef Improvement Group. Earlier this year they successfully secured a £1.2m grant from the Technology Strategy Board. They are using this to carry out an inventive project to measure Net Feed Efficiency, which will help beef producers drive down production costs and compete in the world market.

When I was in Hong Kong three weeks ago I went to a reception promoting our new agreement to sell beef on the bone to Hong Kong. I can’t resist mentioning that the centre piece of the event was that I carved a prime piece of Yorkshire beef from Whitby.

Government is also determined to do everything possible to improve food production. That’s why I’m so supportive of the Food and Drink Federation’s 2020 strategy: 20% sustainable growth by 2020. The Food industry contributes nearly £90 billion a year to the economy and is a key area for growth. We celebrated food exports of £18.1 billion last year.

We need to recognise the role that exports play in our food and drink sector. My recent trip to China showed me how much things have changed there. The middle classes are aspiring to a more westernised diet that includes high-end imported goods, including dairy products.  Russia has just lifted their ban on the import of British beef and lamb, opening up a huge new market, potentially worth £80million over the next three years.

British food is becoming increasingly popular abroad thanks to its excellent reputation. We have high quality ingredients and raw materials. We have rigorous food production standards. We have totally reliable traceability. There are great examples of internationally recognised foods from this part of the world like Wensleydale cheese and Yorkshire pudding. It’s these types of food that help to make British food popular.

I have to mention some of the wonderful entrepreneurial UK companies that I went to China with, including Pukka and Imporient tea. Can you believe that they are selling tea to China?

I came across all kinds of exciting business prospects while I was out there. Visiting one of Tesco’s growing number of stores, I saw for myself the opportunities for some products that there’s no market for in the UK. Like chicken feet for example. One UK company alone produces 9 million chicken feet a week. Currently, disposing of poultry heads and feet costs £17.6 million a year. The estimated market value of UK chicken and turkey feet sold to China could be £300million. Taking up an opportunity like this could reduce waste and be good for the industry.

Incredibly in 2011 the UK threw away 15 million tonnes of food and drink waste. For an average family that is £500 worth of edible food that’s chucked out each year. At least 60% of our household food waste is avoidable. We are already making progress. Since 2006 food waste has been reduced by 13% but there’s more to do. That’s why Government introduced clearer food date labels on products.

We have been drawn into a cult of beauty and perfection, which has no bearing on nutritious or economic value. There’s nothing wrong with ugly veg. There’s no need to throw it out.

We all have a responsibility to do something about this. As an organisation with a diverse membership of 210,000 and a can do attitude, I would like to encourage the WI to help us as a nation cut down on food waste.

While Government can do a lot of things, I think a big part of what Government needs to do is get out of people’s hair and let them get on with doing the things they are good at. That’s why we’re getting rid of so many regulations.

Government can’t do this alone. I need the industry and consumers to tell me what more we can do, what other regulations we can get rid of, what processes we can improve.

We are introducing a Groceries Code Adjudicator to even out the balance of power in the supply chain and make sure farmers get a fair deal for their hard work.

We are continuing to support the UK dairy industry through the Code of Practice. I would like to pay tribute to Sir Jim Paice, the previous Agriculture Minister, for his tireless efforts to get this agreed. The Code means that in future, contracts between farmers and dairy processors will be freely negotiated, fairer and more transparent.

I know that the dairy industry is a particular interest for the WI. We can all do our bit to help the industry. We have a £1.2 billion trade deficit in dairy products. Each year we bring in 115,000 tonnes of ice cream – more than double the 50,000 we send abroad. 150,000 tonnes of yoghurt – six times the 25,000 we export. We have a dessert deficit. If we all reached for dairy products with made in the UK on the label, we could make a massive difference. This includes Muller yogurts that are made in Market Drayton in my constituency.

Farming and the food industry are now an international industry. Food prices are impacted by the global market.

In the European Union I’m pushing other Member States hard on CAP reform. I have a clear end point that I’d like European agriculture to arrive at. Decisions on what food to produce should be left to the market, so farmers alone decide what crops to grow and animals to raise. Tax payers’ money should be used to support the environment through our excellent agri-environment schemes, so that farmers and landowners are compensated for the public goods they provide and for which there is no market mechanism.

At the Agriculture Council in November I made it clear that sugar quotas need to go. The price of sugar is 35% higher than it needs to be; it adds an unnecessary 1% on to the weekly shopping basket. This is ridiculous when China imported £1.2billion worth of raw and refined sugar in 2011, more than double what it was the year before. We should be able to export our sugar to them.

We produce just over half of the food we consume. We can’t produce all our own food, mangoes don’t grow well here. 22% of the food we do eat could be produced here. We should back it.

What I want to do is create the conditions for the food industry to grow and at the same time to improve the environment.

The food and farming industry is an amazing success story. It employs 3.6 million people in the UK. The Government has helped to secure 6000 apprenticeships in the industry presenting a great opportunity for innovative young people.

Food security is the responsibility of us all, whether it’s Government, industry or consumers. The Government is working to capitalise on the opportunities offered by the growing global demand for high-quality British products. Industry is investing in science to keep Britain at the cutting edge of food technology. Consumers are voting with their money by demanding sustainable products and clearer labelling.

In the UK we are well equipped to rise to the challenge of food security.

The WI’s discussion paper has kicked off a national debate on how to achieve food security. I know it will make an important contribution and I look forward to working with you.