The UK is one of the most innovative food nations in the world. British food and drink is on supermarket shelves, and in bars and restaurants, from Beijing to Bogota, and yet Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, still wants more.
Truss is hugely ambitious to secure the future sustainability of Britain’s food and farming industry, describing it as a powerhouse that contributes more than £100billion each year to the economy and employs one in eight people. Recent years have seen exports of British wine, beer, biscuits, cheese – and even chillies – rise significantly.
“I want to see Britain’s food and farming industry as a world leader,” she said. “It is already making great progress. Overall, UK exports of food and drink having risen by £1.2billion since 2010 to nearly £19billion but I want to see it expand and grow even further.”
When I ask her how she can support the sustainability of the industry she talks about the new Great British Food Unit that has been established to celebrate top-quality British produce both at home and abroad.
She clearly felt it was needed. Last year, in her speech to Conservative Conference, she described it as a “disgrace” that the UK still imported two-thirds of its apples, two-thirds of its cheese and nine-tenths of its pears, despite the growth in popularity of British varieties abroad.
“The Great British Food Unit will boost jobs, skills, investment, and export opportunities in the food and farming sector. It will champion existing
consumer trust in our uncompromising standards of quality, authenticity, safety and animal welfare as well as provenance based on proud local identity. It will help businesses to produce and sell more British food.” She adds that people increasingly appreciate the importance of food. “People are demanding healthier, seasonal food to cook at home. And they want nutritious ingredients, too, sourced locally where possible.”
Elected as the Conservative MP for South West Norfolk in 2010, Truss, promoted to the Cabinet after just four years as an MP, is keen to see technology used to help grow the rural economy, protect the natural environment, and boost the UK’s food and farming industry. She wants to export the data revolution powering wealth creation and innovation in urban areas to the countryside.
“Connecting data, technology and ideas can help us harness the potential in food, in the environment and the countryside. The scientific know-how and flair for innovation in the UK farming industry puts us in a superb position to take advantage of the benefits of new technology and meet the increasing global demand for food.”
The role of Secretary of State for the Environment, to which she was appointed in July 2014, is clearly not just about cowsheds, flood barriers and the great outdoors. At the heart of her digital vision is her plan to put Britain at the front of the open data revolution by releasing datasets from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).
Defra’s rich archive of datasets includes the tracking of animal movements since the Second World War, the monitoring of the rural economy since Domesday and, since the 1940s, changes to family eating habits, like the arrival of spaghetti bolognese. Truss hopes the data will be harnessed to bring the productivity of the countryside up to the level of UK towns and cities.
She says: “Defra has more broad, varied and rich data than any other government department. We are opening our vast data vaults as part of our ongoing goal to boost growth and improve productivity. Our year-long plan is to make our rich archive of over 8,000 datasets, packed with millions of records, freely available for anyone to use, including app developers and other entrepreneurs. It will be the biggest government data giveaway Britain has ever seen.
“Environmental and geospatial data are the top two data categories in demand by companies. By using cutting-edge data sources, such as Copernicus satellites, and building better links between our science and wider research networkswe will improve the way we collect and use data. Farmers will be able to find the best soils for their crops and supermarkets can monitor whether the fish they buy are from sustainable sources.”
Ensuring the food and farming industry becomes a top destination for graduates is another important step towards sustainability, says Truss, who, before entering parliament, was deputy director at the think tank Reform. “We need to ensure food
and farming attracts sufficient numbers of entrepreneurial, talented new entrants,” she says. “We will triple the number of food and farming apprenticeships and are boosting investment in the latest technologies.”
Truss believes farming has significantly moved on over the past 50 years and has never looked more exciting. She points out that Defra has an ambitious science programme designed to research ways to help make farming more productive and protect against serious threats to animal and plant health. She adds that the government has committed £160millon to develop farming technology.
“This is just one way we are supporting innovative projects which will help secure the future of our food and farming industry and improve profitability. Projects such as the precision-farming and hands-free tractors of Riviera Produce in Cornwall to Lincolnshire University’s development of 3D camera technology to identify when broccoli can be harvested are just a couple of examples of this.”
Other innovative production techniques have seen Defra work across the industry to develop voluntary agreements to ensure the sustainable use of resources – as a result, says Truss, many companies are experimenting with renewable energies to help reduce the UK’s carbon footprint.
She highlights work by McCain Foods, which has invested in wind turbines and an anaerobic lagoon which digests waste water to create a gas that can then be stored and used to produce electricity. Thanet Earth, too, one of the UK’s largest glasshouse complexes uses the latest combined heat and power (CHP) technology – a system that simultaneously generates electricity and thermal energy – to power its greenhouses.
Warming to her theme, she says: “The rural economy has extraordinary vitality and is worth more than £210billion a year – but it could generate billions more for the UK and provide thousands of new jobs over the next decade. We need to protect and develop our rural environment.
“Rural communities deserve the same opportunities as urban ones, which is why we launched our Productivity Plan which will unleash the full potential of rural areas by strengthening connectivity through improved mobile and transport connections. I am determined to make sure the countryside becomes an even more attractive place for people to live, work, start a business and bring up their family, particularly by overcoming housing constraints and improving access to affordable childcare for working parents.
“By doing this we can boost productivity, grow the rural economy and safeguard the long-term success of our towns and villages. It’s vital that we create the right environment for small businesses to flourish and make it as easy to open and expand a business in Cornwall as it is in Camden.”