Comment: Renewed food export bid must be the tip of the iceberg

IT WAS good to see the Environment Secretary announce the government's commitment to growing the value of British food exports this week - something that in the long run can build extra financial resilience in the food and farming sector in this country.

The Great British Food Unit aims to boost exports of British food.

A ‘Great British Food Unit’ has been set up within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to focus on elevating UK trade overseas over the next five years.

Its aim, to match in value the food exports performance of Germany and France may be ambitious - both currently outperform the UK by 100 per cent - but it’s time to be bullish about our intentions and to transfer this rhetoric into firm action in this climate of global market volatility.

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But why has a government department with ‘food’ in its title not had such a dedicated ‘unit’ for decades so it could maximise returns from fast-growing global economies? Should this sort of work not just be par for the course or is this a government just dressing up what’s already at its disposal?

Nonetheless, it’s right to be forward-looking.

There will be few quick wins on the export front however and so there needs to be equal resolve to meet short-term challenges. How farmland is managed according to its unique geography to improve flood resistance is one such concern.

The list of immediate problems also extends to ‘red tape’, with the regulatory burden on farmers accounting for as much as ten per cent of an individual farmer’s expenditure. Regulations need to remain robust but be made simpler, and it’s hoped the Prime Minister’s EU membership renegotiations can deliver.

Legislation needs to follow in the same vein, as a CLA report on rural business outlined this week. Farmers trying to cope with a myriad of financial pressures - low farmgate prices, loss of uninsurable crops to flooding, etc - need support to explore other avenues of income. The government’s relaxed legislation around converting redundant farm building into much-needed rural homes is an example of where this is failing - 49 per cent of applications have been refused.

The GB Food Unit needs to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of delivering change which allows farmers and rural communities to realise their true potential.