Food strategy welcomed

A 20-year vision for the country's food production was last night hailed as finally recognising the key role of farmers and growers in helping to feed the nation.

A 20-year vision for the country's food production was last night hailed as finally recognising the key role of farmers and growers in helping to feed the nation.

Environment secretary Hilary Benn's blueprint strategy, Food 2030, was broadly welcomed by the region's farmers' leaders as a first step in boosting national production.

Mr Benn told the Oxford Farming Conference the �80bn farming and food businesses - the country's largest manufacturing sector employing 3.6m people - could provide Britain's consumers with a secure supply chain in a world facing dramatic population growth and climate change.

Norfolk NFU's Richard Hirst said farmers, once dubbed “park-keepers” by former Defra secretary Margaret Beckett, now had a central role at the heart of the country's long-term food strategy.

Mr Hirst, who was elected to the National Farmers' Union's ruling council last month, warned the government had to back fine words with deeds. “It is all very well governments telling us what we have to do, but they have to take some responsibility,” he said.

Mid-Norfolk arable farmer and fruit grower Chris Allhusen, who is chairman of Norfolk Country Land and Business Association, identified three strands to deliver the 20-year food strategy.

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He said the industry could deliver environment and food security but there must be huge investment in basic research, clear and honest food labelling and “joined-up thinking from government and agencies.”

Mr Allhusen, who grows blackcurrants for Ribena on the family's estate at East Bradenham, near Dereham, added: “We are not going to increase yields without a fairly huge investment in basis research.

“We want our farmers and growers to produce high-quality food at a reasonable price while maintaining a very environmental level.”

“We are producing things more sustainably. We've been doing it for years,” added Mr Allhusen who said the industry could do even more by reducing greenhouse gas production.

However, the industry could not afford to fund the R&D (research and development) to deliver the strategy, he added.

Last year, a Royal Society's report argued that an additional �1bn would be needed over the decade to boost basic research and to keep UK industry competitive.

Mr Hirst, who farms at Ormesby, near Yarmouth, said ministers had to give the industry confidence to invest over the longer-term. In last month's Budget, the government scrapped incentives for farmers, who had invested to reduce the impact of climate change, he said.

In the opening speech to about 600 delegates, Mr Benn said: “We need to produce more food. We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure that what we eat safeguards our health. We know the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves.”

He said people power could boost demand for healthy food which has been produced locally and with a smaller environmental footprint.

But Mr Hirst warned: “It is all well saying: 'Let's buy more British.' There's no point in producing more if we cannot get the right price for it, so that we can reinvest to do the job better.”

Mr Allhusen said the government must crack the labelling nut. “Why shouldn't consumers have honest labelling on their food. If they're buying a chicken product thinking it comes from UK and it actually contains meat from Thailand, they're being conned.

“To move this whole programme forward, we do need more than just words, which is really all that the government is producing at the moment,” he added.

NFU president Peter Kendall said: “Farmers and growers are already demonstrating they can produce more food while impacting less. What we now need are policies that underpin and enhance a productive agriculture sector.”