Liz Truss: UK agriculture leads way on quality and innovation

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THREE weeks ago I, like thousands of others, took to the streets of Addingham to experience the excitement of the Grand Départ. As well as the high drama of the cycling, the event was a fantastic showcase for Yorkshire and everything it has to offer. Whether it’s the splendid landscapes, the world-famous foods – Wensleydale Cheese and Forced Rhubarb are two of its protected food names – or the Michelin-starred restaurants, they’re all underpinned by the county’s proud heritage of food and farming. That said, this isn’t a county resting on the laurels of its agricultural past – it’s also at the forefront of some of the most advanced research and development.

Supporting innovation in our food and farming sector is crucial to growing the economy and meeting future demand for food. If we are to feed our population, improve our health and conserve our precious resources like water – science is crucial. York is already a powerhouse of agri-tech, with the Biorenewables Development Centre, the Centre for Novel Agriculture Products, the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence and the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) all based there and working to develop a more sustainable food chain, with the potential to benefit farmers and consumers alike.

Today, the UK agri-food industry is worth £97bn and employs nearly four million people. It is our largest manufacturing sector. That’s why boosting food production is vital to the growth of our economy and why this Government is putting agriculture at the heart of its long-term economic plan.

I’m really pleased that one of my first announcements as Environment Secretary is the £18m of projects, jointly funded with industry, to support 15 cutting-edge agricultural research projects across Britain. These projects will help take ideas from the lab to the marketplace, further developing our high-tech, highly-skilled food sector.

Yorkshire is involved in two very exciting projects, which will receive funding.

One aims to develop a process for reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers and is led by the Sheffield company, ITM Power, with the University of Sheffield and Fera among the partners.

This project is great news for farmers at home and abroad, demonstrating how we can use science to both grow the economy and improve the environment. The other project involves Yorkshire’s own Morrisons supermarket and Scotland’s Rural College working together to improve lamb breeding.

But it is not just our investment in these schemes – £5.7m has come from industry, showing that businesses are backing the Government’s strategy. As well as encouraging innovation, it’s vital, as part of our long term economic plan, that we unlock new opportunities for our farmers and food producers.

Every year the public sector in England spends £1.2bn on food and drink. Up to £600m of that is spent on imported produce, £400m of which could be sourced from within the UK.

On Monday the Prime Minister and I travelled to the Royal Welsh Show to launch our “Plan for Public Procurement”. The plan introduces a new, simplified food and drink buying standard and will see up to £400m of potential new business up for grabs by British farmers and producers.

From 2017, all of central government will commit to buying fresh, locally-sourced, seasonal food. It is expected that the wider public sector, including our schools and hospitals, will follow this lead.

Only last week I saw for myself on a visit to Barnes Primary School in London the real impact good procurement can have. Since switching to locally produced food, the school has increased their meal uptake to 80 per cent. It was great to hear from the children how much they enjoy their school meals.

It is encouraging to see more schools engaging with local farmers and even growing their own food. I know many schools in Yorkshire are taking a lead on this, educating their pupils about the food chain, taking them on the exciting journey from field to fork. I hope that more and more schools can be inspired to follow this example.

We have a first-class food 
and drink industry, which we should all be proud of. I want to see it continue to grow, supporting jobs and communities across the country, not least here in Yorkshire.

That’s why the Government is dedicated to opening up new markets, ensuring that our farmers and growers are the most competitive in the world and putting the UK on the map as a world leader in agricultural science, innovation and sustainability.

We led the agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s vital that we do the same today.

Liz Truss MP is the new Environment Secretary. She was educated in Leeds.

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