Reducing red tape and overregulation is going to be a key focus in the UK government’s efforts to support national farming, says George Eustice, the Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, in an exclusive interview with Produce Business UK
Since returning to power in May, the Conservative party appears to keen to emphasise its support for the UK’s food and farming sectors, primarily through a focus on cutting ‘red tape’ and by providing financial backing for technological initiatives.
In July, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged 20,000 fewer farm inspections – which he claimed were taking up valuable time and limiting the potential of the sector to grow – and announced the creation of a single Farm Inspection Taskforce.
At the same time, Cameron also vowed to support a new UK-wide Food Innovation Network, with the promise that small and medium-sized businesses would have greater access to world-leading technology and science.
These two key topics were returned to time and again by the Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment (Defra), George Eustice, during our interview.
Through its Agri-tech strategy, Eustice says the government is looking to support new technology solutions, including efforts by research bodies, such as East Malling Research, to extend the UK’s soft-fruit season.
Cutting red tape and overregulation is going to be central to the government’s efforts to support UK growers going forward, according to the minister, who argues that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) needs to be reformed to ease regulatory pressure on growers.
Eustice says the government has pledged to reduce administrative burden on fruit and vegetable producers, while also working to slim down and simplify the “onerous” inspection regime.
At the same time, the minister argues that penalties imposed on growers for minor legal infringements need to be proportionate, claiming that producers are often hit with draconian fines out of all proportion to any offence committed.
“We’ve got a whole package of measures that we want to see implemented – reduced administration and inspections, and more proportionate, less arbitrary penalties,” he says.
“If we were to design the Common Agricultural Policy from scratch, I’m sure we could do a far better job.”
CAP reform necessary
Eustice is certainly well-versed in challenges faced by the fresh produce sector. This affinity is perhaps unsurprising given that he worked for almost 10 years within his family’s fruit business, Trevaskis Fruit Farm, near Hayle, Cornwall, harvesting everything from strawberries to winter vegetables.
“I studied commercial horticulture, so I understand the challenges and the risks involved – it’s always been an unsubsidised sector,” he says.
Eustice argues that one of the factors that makes the fresh produce sector unique is the amount of people with no prior experience who have successfully started their own fruit and vegetable businesses.
However, he claims that the existing CAP does not reward risk takers, arguing that an improved system is necessary to help growers mitigate and manage risk. Such improvements, Eustice claims, can only be achieved by supporting businesses to invest in new technology, so they are better able to compete.
The topic of receiving a fair deal from the European Union (EU) is one that Eustice has highlighted a number of times since assuming office. In fact, the minister last year met with UK growers to discuss ways in which European grants could be better focused.
“I met with the British Growers Association and they had an interesting idea about the EU grant – this is predominantly focused on marketing, but the UK fruit and vegetable industry has a few very large and very dominant players that have nothing to gain from being part of a marketing cooperative,” he explains.
“What they would be able to benefit from would be if they were able to draw down funding for research and development. We would then give businesses that are in every other respect competitors, every incentive to work together to address common challenges, such as pests and diseases.”
Eustice also argues there is a need to make access to crop protection products more straightforward across EU countries.
“We’ve had conversations around the importance of crop protection products, where we’ve discussed… Europe-wide mutual recognition,” he says. “Something could be done around burden sharing.”
An example Eustice cites is where cereal fungicides could be applied to some fruits and vegetables, but whose approval has been delayed due to product category differences.
25-year farming strategy
But is the government really doing enough to address the massive import-export deficit, and the virtual inability of UK fresh produce companies to compete in anything but small volume?
Hein Deprez, chairman of Univeg’s parent company Greenyard Foods, recently argued in a wide-ranging interview with Produce Business UK that there is “a long way to go” before the UK can become competitive in terms of production, cost price and quality.
Eustice says part of the difficulty for UK growers has been the presence of a large domestic market that absorbs most of the volume and makes exports less attractive.
Despite that, the minister says increasing exports is a long-term objective for the government. “We want to see our fruit and vegetable sector profitable and we want to see it expand,” he claims.
Working toward this goal is one of the objectives included in the government-industry 25-year Food and Farming Strategy; a cross-sector initiative that is expected to publish its outline plan later this year.
The strategy originates from a summit held by Defra ministers with 80 leading representatives from food and farming companies in July, who met with the aim of developing a long-term plan to secure the future of the industry.
In a news release ahead of the event, Defra claimed the industry-led 25-year plan would “up the country’s ambitions” for food and farming; setting out how the UK could grow, buy and sell more British food products.
The plan’s development, it said, would discuss ways to promote a British brand, grow exports, improve skills, attract high-flyers and harness data and technology so the industry can innovate, grow and create jobs.
Improving breeding & recruitment
According to Eustice, technology was a key theme during the discussions, with the ministry and industry representatives keen to examine how technological solutions could be used to improve profitability.
In particular, Eustice singled out as having “a lot of potential” the possibility of using new plant breeding technologies, such as cisgenesis, where genes are taken from identical plant species to produce particular characteristics.
The minister also stressed the need to breed resistance to pests and diseases, arguing that reliance on chemical plant protection products is likely to reduce over the coming decades.
The challenge of attracting young people into the sector was also discussed, and Eustice says the government has committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships for skilled jobs in the food and farming industries.
“The sector is not just looking for casual labour, there are also specialist technician roles, farm managers, supervisors and agronomists, and we need to make sure we’ve got sufficient people,” he says.
Eustice says he has already held talks with the Landex group of colleges to discuss bringing in new courses and qualifications better suited to the needs of the food and farming sectors. “15 years ago, we had the HND [Higher National Diploma], but that doesn’t quite have the status it once had and has been replaced with a patchwork of vocational qualifications, none of which have the credibility we need,” he argues.
Following the initial meeting of the industry grouping in July, the development of the food and farming strategy will be pursued through a series of regional and sector-specific workshops, which will be used to finesse the detail of the proposals.
The final version of the 25-year plan is set to be published towards the end of the year, alongside ‘milestones’ setting out dates for achieving its objectives. “We want it to be the beginning of something and to be something that we can build on,” Eustice concludes.