Andrea Leadsom: Rich harvest to be reaped for our farmers outside EU

Will Brexit be farming's salvation?
Will Brexit be farming's salvation?
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FOR an industry that’s been around as long as mankind itself, farming has been at the centre of human achievement.

And, no matter how the world changes, we rely on the same three basic needs to sustain us – food, air and water.

Farming is at the heart of all of our lives. It builds rural communities.It supports our beautiful natural environment. And vitally, as the global population moves towards nine billion by 2050, it feeds us.

Nothing should be more important to us all than the continued success of this great industry. At every Cabinet meeting I attend, improving productivity is at the top of the agenda – and it’s a particular focus for farming and rural areas.

Currently, 35 per cent of farm businesses generate 90 per cent of the total output – so there is plenty of scope for improvement.

And with a focus on resilience and greater productivity, a world of opportunity awaits British farming.

But, to make the most of this, we have got to get three, very crucial, things right.

Firstly, to equip the workforce with the right skills;

Secondly, to take innovation in farming to the next level;

And thirdly, to get out there, and export more of our Great British food and drink to the world.

So the industry needs to attract more of our bright young people into a career in food and farming – and in our 2015 manifesto, we set ourselves a target to treble the number of apprenticeships by 2020.

Last summer, I helped to launch 10 new ‘Industry Approved Apprenticeship Programmes’. These schemes will professionalise careers in baking, butchery, and dairy – but backing the rising stars of food and farming will require a joint effort on behalf of government and business.

Just before the New Year, we heard the fantastic news that McDonalds is moving its non-US operations to the UK – a real vote of confidence.

It’s great news for farming, too, as McDonalds have just launched the next round of their Progressive Young Farmers scheme. Other businesses are helping to secure their future supply chain, too – with Sainsbury’s, McCains, and Moy Park just a few of the organisations offering apprenticeships in agriculture, farming, and food technology.

But I also know how important seasonal labour from the EU is, to the everyday running of farming businesses.

I’ve heard this loud and clear around the country, and I want to pay tribute to the many workers from Europe who contribute so much. Access to labour is an important part of our current discussions – and we’re committed to working to make sure businesses have the right people with the right skills.

A strong, skilled workforce will allow farmers to focus on how the latest technology can transform their business.

Agri-tech is where the future of food and farming lies – and I’ve seen for myself how smart innovations can cut costs for farmers and help the environment.

The Government has allocated £160m to a dedicated agri-tech strategy. This includes funding for agri-tech catalysts and four Centres for Agricultural Innovation.

From driverless tractors, to climate-controlled storage, and sustainable initiatives like PepsiCo’s 50 in 5, these are the sorts of innovations that will enable us to compete in global markets.

And as I’ve made very clear, one of my key priorities as we leave the EU is to see more Great British food grown, sold and consumed around the world.

Whether its bestselling brands like Tyrells crisps, Snowdonia cheese, and Walkers shortbread, or primary products like barley, beef or dairy, there’s a big market out there for the provenance of British food and drink. Our high standards underpin the entire food chain, and it’s why the Union flag, and marques such as the Red Tractor and LEAF, instil such confidence.

I saw this for myself in China, where there’s a growing appetite for British food and drink. We now have our biggest export team based there, and the past year has seen a huge rise in UK exports to China – up over 50 per cent on 2015.

China is just one of the nine priority markets we identified, with markets in the US, Australia, India and the UAE offering big opportunities, too.

So, I’m confident, that with the 
quality and reputation of the food we produce, we can get more businesses exporting, and build on the growth we saw in 2016.

I have no doubt that our best days as a food and farming nation lie ahead of us.

In leaving the EU, we’ve been handed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take Britain forward; a real opportunity to thrive.

We can design, from first principles, an agricultural system that works for us. We can go even further to care for our stunning habitats and landscapes. And we can export more of our world-class food and drink.

I am committed to securing the best possible deal for British farmers and to securing the future of this great industry.

Andrea Leadsom is the Environment Secretary. She spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference 2017 this week. This is an edited version.