After four years as an MP in one of Britain’s agricultural heartlands, Liz Truss has been well prepared for her role as the Government’s new Environment Secretary
Having fought the corner for farmers in her South West Norfolk constituency, she knows all too well the challenges facing the country’s producers.
Speaking to Farmers Guardian in her office at Defra’s London headquarters, Ms Truss said she was pushing for a variety of measures which she believed would make it easier for farmers to get out and do what they do best - farm.
Bureaucracy, whether from Brussels or Westminster, is hampering farmers and needs to be cut down, she said, highlighting implementation of CAP greening and flood prevention work - something the Minister has lobbied hard for on her own patch.
She said: “Some of the issues I have come across as a constituency MP, for example working with the local internal drainage boards, is very relevant to this role as Secretary of State.
“In Norfolk, we move from things such as drought to flood and, actually, what we need to do is have more incentives and get more responsibility to farmers and landowners to be able to store that water and use it better.
“That is something the Environment Agency (EA) I think can help with.
“Unfortunately, there has been a lot of red tape which has prevented them [farmers] being able to take the action they might have wanted to in order to protect their land.”
Giving more power to farmers is something the Minster thinks will work and she has met with the EA’s new chairman, Sir Philip Dilley, to start the ball rolling.
“There are a lot of people who understand the land, who are well placed to carry out the work and, where it is in their interest to carry it out, we need to make it easier for them to do that,” said the Minster, adding she was keen to ‘fast-track’ policy which would allow river maintenance pilots - launched in selected areas last year - to be rolled out across the country.
A smooth transition in the implementation of the new CAP is another priority in the Secretary of State’s in-tray.
She has already written to the European Commission to push for a review of the potentially burdensome three crop rule in 2016 and maintains the Government will remain flexible when it comes to the new Basic Payment Scheme.
“I am trying to minimise the effect of some of those rules - to be frank, particularly the three crop rule,” said Ms Truss.
“We are trying to implement it [the three crop rule] in as flexible way as possible so farmers can produce the food people want to eat.”
On the theme of cutting unnecessary red tape, the Minister said she wanted to build on the work of her predecessor Owen Paterson in ensuring the recommendations of the Macdonald Report are adhered to, especially in terms of reducing farm inspections.
“We have done well with the earned recognition schemes in reducing the number of inspections and I think we can do more on that front,” she said.
“I would like to see a drop in the number of inspections because it is still the case farmers are being inspected by multiple bodies where they could be amalgamated.”
How soon farmers on the ground will see change remains to be seen, but Ms Truss, the UK’s youngest female Cabinet Minister, seems confident she will make a difference during her time in office.
Previously a junior minister in the Department for Education, she was responsible for putting food on the curriculum to ensure children are educated about where their food comes from.
This, she said, was paramount in developing young people’s understanding of agriculture - important if the farming industry is going to attract the calibre of new entrants it needs.
“I want to get more young people onto farms because seeing what goes on is a real eye-opener,” she said.
Getting young people into research facilities such as the John Innes Centre can also ‘expose young people to a level of research and science, showing them it is vitally important, not just for the future of food and farming, but for the future of all of us in terms of the way we live’.
Raising the profile of the industry is high on the agenda, as is enticing more women into the sector.
Hinting about a new initiative which will be launched soon, she said: “I think it is a fantastic area with huge opportunities in Britain and overseas.
“I think a lot of the great innovations are taking pace in food and farming so it is making people aware of these opportunities.”
Genetically modified crops
I want us to have a competitive, productive food and farming sector and we absolutely need to have GM as a part of that. If we are going to do things like conserve our water and work in an environmental way it has to be part of the solution.
I think we are making progress in Europe and we need to continue to make that case. If we want to stay competitive and if we want our farms to be productive, we need to have the technology available to us which is available to other countries across the world.
It is absolutely vital we work towards the point of being TB free in England. Between 1997-2010 we saw a tenfold increase in the number of infected cattle and it is not an option to do nothing about this.
We do have a broad strategy which includes improving farm security and vaccinating badgers on the edge zone, but we also need to cull those badgers which are diseased to be able to deal with the reservoir in the wildlife population.
What we have seen from the evidence from Australia, which is now TB free – and also the evidence from New Zealand and Ireland – shows a cull does have to be part of the overall strategy and we are moving ahead with that.
My job this year is to implement the recommendations of the independent panel to make sure we carry out the cull in the most humane and effective way possible and to show it has a positive effect against TB. Then we can look at rolling it out further and what we do over time.
On-farm renewable energy
Where you are talking about farm waste, it can be a very efficient way of producing energy and I appreciate that.
However, there is a difference between that and using fertile agricultural land for producing energy when actually, it would be better for our country’s economy and the environment if that fertile land was used for agricultural production.
A closer look at the new Defra Secretary, Liz Truss.