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The future of British food - do we have a plan?

Earlier this year Defra launched a plan of how the UK can grow more, buy more and sell more British food. Cedric Porter asked five experts for their views on the plan’s seven main points.

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Defra launched "buy more sell more" British food - what is the plan for the future? #food ~BritishFood

Defra aim: Strengthening the British brand to ensure our quality produce is celebrated both at home and abroad.


  • Andrew Nottage, independent consultant and agronomist:


In a global commodity market we have to identify what makes British produce special. Provenance and sustainability could be important selling points along with assurance, so we need to highlight schemes such as Red Tractor and Leaf more.

David Sheppard, managing director of Gleadell and chairman of the AIC Arable Marketing Group:


British grain has built up a good reputation for quality over time, with buyers valuing our assurance schemes. But we are still in a period of rebuilding markets after the very poor quality harvest of 2012.

  • David Caffall, chief executive, Agricultural Industries Confederation:


Demonstrating widespread domestic take-up of British food is critical to strengthening the British brand. Defra must take a more joined up approach with other Government departments to give UK agricultural production the same recognition other business and trade export sectors receive.

Dr Tina Barsby, chief executive officer, NIAB:


British crop science is recognised around the world as being at the cutting edge in all areas from breeding and production through to processing. More does need to be done to highlight the excellence of our research and development.

  • Liz Bowles, head of farming, Soil Association:


There is a large and fast growing demand for organic produce around the world and British produce has a reputation for high quality and standards. At the moment most British organic exports are for premium products, but there will be longer term opportunities for grain and other products.

Potato growers have become very efficient, but we continue to import large quantities of potatoes and potato products

Potato growers have become very efficient, but we continue to import large quantities of potatoes and potato products

Defra aim: Increasing exports to ensure British products are enjoyed by even more countries across the world.

  • Mr Caffal:


To succeed in export markets the UK, must be competitive. Currently, the complex EU regulatory environment places excessive burden and cost on industry. It is not ‘no regulation’ but ‘smart regulation’ – a message which came from 40+ organisations in our Food Supply in the Balance report.


Continued support of industry via long term programmes, including extending the term of the Agri-Tech strategy, is also a crucial part of building both competitiveness and export confidence.

Mr Sheppard:


This year’s large harvest means we will have large stocks available to export in a year where there are large worldwide stocks, but there will be an opportunity to replace feed grain imports, especially maize, with domestic wheat and barley.

  • Dr Barsby:


We are good in exporting our science, perhaps sometimes too good in that other countries can benefit from our research before we can. An example of this is the development of blight-resistant potatoes which was carried out in British institutions, but is being commercialised in America. However, this is not an argument for stopping investment in British research.

  • Ms Bowles:


The Soil Association has a trade team developing links with overseas importers, but the export market is similar to the domestic one in that growers need to have an understanding as to what the market wants and delivering that by working with a trusted processor or retailer. There is a great example of organic oat farmers doing that to the benefit of the whole supply chain.

  • Mr Nottage:


It is not just a question of increasing exports, but also one of reducing imports. In the potato sector growers have become very efficient, but we still import large volumes of fresh potatoes and potato products.

Defra aim: Breaking down barriers to trade which will enable budding food entrepreneurs to unleash their full potential and access new markets.

  • Mr Sheppard: Doing business internationally is not easy. There is a developing market in bean and pulse crops, where exports can be delivered in containers, bags or bulk. Being part of a global operation helps Gleadell take advantage of international opportunities.
  • Dr Barsby: The biggest barriers remain around genetically modified [GM], although Britain is still playing its part in the development of the technology. The restrictions on GM have also encouraged British researchers to develop innovative non-GM technology which is not subject to the same restrictions or costs.
  • Ms Bowles: One of the biggest barriers for organics is the dis-economies of scale which means not enough organic food is produced, so hindering its availability and making it more expensive.

What is exciting are the marketing barriers which have been broken down by social media which allows farmers to interact with their customers more directly and often.


  • Mr Nottage: There is still room for improvement in the way we operate and the development of new technology is giving us more information allowing us to share ideas with farmers across the world.
  • Mr Caffall:

Access to capital as well as the time and cost required to meet regulatory requirements are the main barriers to entry for new companies. The Government’s Agri-Tech strategy catalyst fund has begun to address the funding aspect, however, at present this is just a five-year programme and the complexity of applying has deterred some.

Defra aim: Increasing procurement of British produce including in schools and hospitals.

  • Dr Barsby: By supplying locally-produced food there is more of an opportunity to increase the awareness of where food comes from and get children more interested in the science and technology behind its production. Also, food has a major role in improving people’s health. British researchers are conducting work on improving the nutritional value of fruit, veg, grains and potatoes.


  • Ms Bowles: Incentivising and funding school and hospital food procurement is vital. The Scottish Government has recognised the importance of organic produce in diets and in Denmark there is a requirement for organic produce. The Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark insists on locally-sourced food for its bronze and silver levels and organic for its gold standard.
  • Mr Nottage: The interest in where food comes from and the role it has to play in leading a healthy life is very welcome, but supplying schools and hospitals is a very competitive business and difficult to break into.

Systems need to be developed which allow farmers or groups of farmers to respond to demand for local produce.


  • Mr Caffall: Given the great benefits of UK agricultural and horticultural produce, such as quality, traceability and sustainability, it is totally wrong schools and hospitals cannot play their part in ensuring food security due to public sector procurement rules.

Not only would buying UK-grown produce support the local, rural economy, it would also wave the flag for the strength and value of the British brand.


Look at Arable farming magazine here

  • Mr Sheppard: We always insist on using locally-sourced food at our events and think schools and hospitals should try to do so too. It is important farmers produce what is required for local markets and assess what is most appropriate for them.
This year's big harvest means there will be large stocks available for export

This year's big harvest means there will be large stocks available for export

Defra aim: Attracting investment into the industry

  • Ms Bowles: Investment in land is as popular as ever and we would hope some of those new owners want to increase sustainability of production. There are also exciting new ways of financing business and we are seeing crowd funders and others attracted to organic businesses.
  • Mr Nottage: Farming and farmland in particular attracts investment and in my area I have been very impressed with Agri-Tech East, which has been set up to attract investment into the farming industry in the East of England and share ideas and encourage innovation between farmers, scientists and others.
  • Mr Caffall: Investors are heavily influenced by regulatory structure at both national and, importantly, European level. While the UK Government’s efforts to promote an evidence-based, sound science approach to agriculture is to be commended, the truth is the EU has an appalling record of decision-making based on speculation, conjecture and ‘who shouts loudest’. Until this changes, global businesses will continue to take their funds elsewhere.
  • Mr Sheppard: There has been significant investment in grain storage on-farms and in central stores. As a company we have invested in our Immingham and Great Yarmouth sites which should provide excellent facilities for many years to come. On-farm investment over the past few years does appear to be making a difference and the first evidence of a breaking out of the wheat yield plateau we have seen for 10 years, could be emerging.
  • Dr Barsby: There is undoubtedly more interest from investors in agriculture. The Government’s Agri-Tech strategy has helped, and the combination of public and private initiatives is likely to have the greatest effect. We have launched NIAB Ventures which helps facilitate investment in innovative systems bring researchers and businesses together.

Defra aim: Boosting skills and apprenticeships to ensure the industry has the confidence and capacity to meet the growing demand for British produce.

  • Mr Nottage: Although we always need to be improving our technical skills, I think there is still progress to be made in people management, marketing, IT and financial skills.
  • Mr Caffall: Strong agricultural and horticultural commitment to the Brightcrop initiative is a clear demonstration the industry takes the need for skills very seriously. However, more needs to be done to highlight the vast range of career opportunities to those leaving secondary and tertiary education. A partnership between secondary education and industry through the national curriculum would send a strong message of Government support and a real win for the 25-year plan.
  • Mr Sheppard: We have recognised attracting new talent is vital for a number of years. We employ 10-20 new staff a year and now two-thirds of our staff are under 35 years old. Industry schemes such as Brightcrop also play a very important role in highlighting the opportunities for British agriculture.
  • Dr Barsby: There is a definite need to improve skills on-farm. Research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found agricultural employers provide an average of 2.5 days training a year compared to a national average of 4.2 days and that in 2013 only 41% of agricultural employees received any training, the lowest in any sector and compared to 65% for the national average. NIAB is a partner in ARTIS [Agri-Tech Register and Training for Innovation and Skills] which is identifying where there are skills gaps and working with the supply chain to fill those gaps.
  • Ms Bowles: There is a definite shortage of skills, but it is important there are jobs and the prospect of a good career for those joining farming. Following demand, we have started working with an agricultural college to offer an organic module in their degree courses.

Defra aim: Increasing productivity through innovation, research and development and sharing data.

  • Dr Barsby: Genetic advances will generate the potential to increase productivity, but one of the most important questions will be which scarce resources will be needed to realise the potential output? I see a vital role for data collection and interpretation and I’m glad public private partnerships such as the new Agrimetrics Centre are doing that.
  • Ms Bowles: Investment in research and development is crucial and arguably the organic sector has not developed as quickly as it could have done if it had had the same funding as chemical-based farming. We have launched the Duchy Future Farming Programme which includes a network of demonstration farms providing practical advice for both organic and non-organic farmers.
  • Mr Nottage: Using a wide range of chemical, seed-breeding and cultural tools to increase yields, control weeds, pest and diseases and improve water and soil quality will be vital in the future. We need to be open to ideas from many sources and countries.
  • Mr Caffall: AIC’s recent report, Food Supply in the Balance highlighted the scale of the threat facing UK agricultural productivity over the next 20 years and set out challenges to both the industry and Government. Central to this is the potential lost opportunity cost of UK agriculture not being able to access new technologies or seeing scientifically unjustified barriers being imposed on UK production which serves only to export production to third countries. Give the industry the room to increase productivity sustainably and it will deliver.
  • Mr Sheppard: We have reached a place where production has caught up with demand, but on a long-term basis there is still a need to produce much more food. It is not just a question of productivity, it is also about sustainability and the correct application of inputs, including fertiliser and the development and promotion of new technologies including precision farming.
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