FARMING faced a tough year in 2012 but the industry has “much to be positive about”, according to Defra Secretary Owen Paterson.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference last week, which is now in its 65th year, he highlighted the problems caused by last year’s weather, pressure on prices, high feed costs and diseases such as bovine TB and Schmallenberg.
But he told the conference that British farmers successfully produce food for 63.5 million people and support industries that add nearly £90bn to the UK economy.
“Our farmers and landowners demonstrate on a daily basis how you can grow the economy while improving the environment. The two are not mutually exclusive,” said Mr Paterson.
“It is these twin objectives, alongside our determination to safeguard animal and plant health, that must guide everything Defra does.
“Above all, I see Defra’s role as working to create the right conditions for rural businesses to thrive and grow.”
He said the department was investing £530m to bring superfast broadband to rural areas by 2015, £150m on more mobile phone masts into rural areas and more than £2.3bn on flood prevention.
Mr Paterson also highlighted the Government’s £410m annual investment in research for agriculture and the food and drink sector – and brought up the controversial subject of genetically-modified (GM) crops.
“In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160m hectares. That’s 11% of the world’s arable land. To put it in context, that’s six times larger than the surface area of the UK,” he said.
“I fully appreciate the strong feelings on both sides of the debate. GM needs to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits. We should not, however, be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel.”
Tackling bovine TB was also a major part of his speech, and he said that pilot badger culls that were cancelled last year would go ahead in the summer.
“I have established a project board with all the key partners – including Defra and its agencies, the NFU, Natural England and the police – to oversee the delivery of the pilot culls,” said Mr Paterson.
“We are all committed to working together in partnership to ensure that the culls go ahead.”
And he called on shoppers to get behind British produce in the same way the country showed its united support for Team GB’s athletes during the Olympics. “We need to convert this support into buying decisions, supporting growth in the sector and the wider economy,” said Mr Paterson.
“At home, we are currently 78% self-sufficient in the type of food we are able to grow in this country. We currently import 22% of food that could be produced here. For example, we have a £1.2bn 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. British fruit and vegetable growers are in a similar position.
“We can all do more and, just as everyone got behind Team GB last summer, we must get behind our food producers.
“By buying British, we boost the rural economy and enjoy some of the best-quality produce in the world.”
Just as everyone got behind Team GB last summer, we must get behind our food producers