A heart-felt enthusiasm for the sector, clear empathy and a willingness to listen characterised Defra Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss’s first visit to the Club last week.
A philosophy, politics and economics graduate of Merton College, Oxford, Ms Truss is MP for South West Norfolk and was previously Undersecretary of State for Health.
She was particularly eager to focus on farming’s public profile. “Some say farming is a sunset industry, but they are wrong. I see it as a sunrise industry, with huge potential. Farming is the backbone of our £100bn food industry, which employs one in eight people in the UK, and is bigger than car manufacturing or aerospace. I want it to have the same level of interest and investment as other industries, and to focus on developing people with the right skills.”
Bovine TB remained a priority, with vet numbers protected despite budget cuts and the cull/vaccinate/cattle movement strategy continuing, in an effort to get TB rates down from what became the highest in Europe in 2010.
She agreed that European decision making on farm inputs needed to shift from a hazard-based system, to a risk-based one. “We need to be on a level playing field with other countries, so we are not importing food that has been grown with products that are banned here.”
More needed to be done to shift the discussion to recognising the merits of farming practices, she added. “The nuclear industry used to have a very poor profile, but it successfully promoted itself in the face of carbon and fossil fuel concerns. Farming could do something similar to promote to the wider public the benefits of plant health products in terms of feeding a growing world population and providing food security in the UK.”
Red tape busting continued. “25% of all government regulations are in Defra, which shows how heavily regulated the industry is. So I am pleased to have specific details [where there are problems] and information about what other countries are doing.”
On first showing Ms Truss proved to be an engaging minister, willing to hear the industry’s concerns. Her understanding of the Defra brief was growing, and Farmers Club members were able to provide plenty of perspective. Let us hope the charming smile and listening ear persist.
* For a full report see the Winter edition of the Farmers Club Journal