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Nick Herbert: Speech to the NFU Annual Conference in Birmingham

It really is a huge pleasure to be with you here today. I could not be more enthusiastic about my new brief.

I'm a country boy and I feel like I'm coming home. I thought that I had seen the back of the justice portfolio which I've just left.

But then I realised that there are as many similarities as differences.

I used to worry about electronically monitoring the wrong criminals.  Now I'm worried about tagging sheep.  What a stupid idea.

I used to think that no department could be more incompetent than the one which has released 30,000 prisoners early because they forgot to build enough jails.

Now I've discovered the Rural Payments Agency.

I used to visit prisons.  Now I visit farms.

I can see a few familiar faces here today.

I've realised that there's a common thread running through the Government's policy, which is to treat everyone as criminals, other themselves.

You and I think it's criminal to bankrupt the country.

They think it's criminal to be a motorist.  Or to put the wrong rubbish in your bin.  Or to be a farmer.

They're finding ever more elaborate ways to spy on us.

Of course, they can't beat the British farmer's resourcefulness.

When I visited the West Country recently, I heard about a farmer who was successfully diversifying.

Using his fields for caravans in the summer.

One day the taxman arrived and showed him satellite pictures of hundreds of caravans on the farm.  "You've only declared the income from a dozen", said the taxman.

"Well that just shows how many of the b---ers aren't paying", said the farmer.

This is a great brief for me because I really care about it.

When I say that farming matters, I'm not just paying lip service to the idea.

I was brought up in the country.  My grandfather farmed in Sussex.

If we win the next election and I'm lucky enough to be appointed, I suspect I'll be the first Secretary of State for some years to have spent the odd night in a lambing shed.

I'm privileged to represent a rural constituency and one of the most beautiful landscapes in England, the South Downs in West Sussex - and its maintained by farmers.

I've devoted most of my working years to defending the rural way of life.

Over a decade ago, a group of us felt that the countryside had become so disconnected from our towns and cities that we needed to form a new organisation to help bridge the divide.

And so the Countryside Movement was born, and later it became the Countryside Alliance.

I'll never forget the filming which we did in London about attitudes to rural life.

When asked where milk came from, a Lambeth hairdresser replied 'Tesco'.

When we told a group of schoolchildren that their milk came from cows, they wouldn't drink it any more.

But I'm afraid it's not just children who need to be reminded about the importance of farming.

I think politicians need to be reminded that farming puts food on the nation's table.

I think people need to be reminded that farming makes the countryside look as it is.

And I think the big supermarkets need to show more respect for British farming, too.

Sometimes the countryside feels neglected, not listened to.  And that can lead to calls for conflict between town and country - seeing 'townies' as the enemy.

I don't subscribe to this view.

I certainly don't have any truck with people who move to the countryside and then complain about crowing cockerels or mud on the roads.  What on earth did they expect?

But I don't believe that farming should bite the hand that it's feeding.

And I've always thought that the public, who mostly live in towns and cities, have a deeper connection with Britain's rural heritage than many of us in the countryside sometimes appreciate.

British farming is remarkably well regarded by most people.

The IGD survey presented at the Oxford Farming Conference found that 78 per cent of the public think that farmers are hard working.

They're in the top three hardest working occupations - some way above politicians.

The survey also found that a quarter of the public think farmers are moaners and nearly a fifth think they're grumpy.

I can't imagine what makes people think that.

The public think that your first responsibility is to provide food.

And of course they're right. 

If only we had a Government which believed the same thing.

Defra says it's "overarching challenge ... is to secure a healthy environment".

It talks about its purpose, and doesn't even mention farming in that purpose.

I yield to no-one in my commitment to protect the environment.

But one of the greatest challenges of tomorrow will be how the world feeds itself.

The uncomfortable truth is that global agricultural production cannot keep up with rising demand.

The days of taking our food supplies for granted are over.

Over the next several decades there will be another 3 billion mouths to feed.

Climate change and water stress will exacerbate the problem.

Supplies are becoming more scarce as demand for them increases.

What's been the Government's response to this major challenge?

It's been to increase the UK's reliance on imports by 8 per cent.

To oversee major declines in production of cereals and meat.

To preside over a widening food, feed, and drink trade deficit which now stands at over £14 billion.

In short, to decrease our productive contribution to food security.

Just a few years ago Gordon Brown said that "domestic production is not a necessary condition for food security."

That seems about as sensible as saying that having collateral wasn't a necessary condition for banks to lend.

The Prime Minister's attitude seems to be, "our farmers are dispensable ... we can manage without them".

So it's hardly surprising that our self-sufficiency in the food we can produce ourselves has dropped from 82 per cent in 1997 to 74 per cent today.

And this is a measurement based on value.

By volume less than half of the food consumed in the UK originates from this country.

Of course self-sufficiency and food security are not precisely the same things.

I recognise the benefit of a diversity of supply.

But what about food miles?

What about our national resilience?

And what about our farmers?

The pendulum has been allowed to swing too far away from domestic production.

We shouldn't throw away our comparative advantage when so much of the world's farmland is under long-term threat.

We have the infrastructure, the soils, the climate and the skills to increase our contribution to both national and global food security.

Using imports as a substitute for produce which could perfectly well be grown here is a waste of potential.

There are some who use 'food security' as an argument for protectionism.
Well they're wrong.

We must continue to dismantle tariff barriers and trade distorting subsidies.

The days of governments setting prices must remain a thing of the past.

But the current approach - expecting farmers to operate in a free market while at the same time blunting their ability to compete - is an untenable half-way house.

We must fight for liberalised markets and enable the industry to compete as fairly as possible in them.

Farmers cannot be told on the one hand that they must operate in a global marketplace and on the other that they have to compete with cheaper foreign produce that can be labelled British.

We live in the age of consumer choice and transparency.

Anyone who stands in the way of this is on the wrong side of the argument.

Shoppers who want to buy British should have confidence in the labelling system.

And at the moment they do not.

Meat can be labelled 'Produced in the UK' but come from pretty well anywhere.

Even the Secretary of State acknowledges that these rules are a nonsense.

He's 'calling for action'.

But that's what we look to the Government for.


The Secretary of State keeps talking about a voluntary scheme.  So did his predecessors - a decade ago.

Over ten years ago a MAFF news release - that's when there was actually a Ministry of Agriculture - trumpeted "consumers win as Brown and retailers agree on labelling."

But the retailers are still using misleading labelling and consumers are losing, not winning.

Last week my team went out with the wonderful Clarissa Dickson Wright - one of the two fat ladies - to investigate what the supermarkets are selling.

They had quite an experience.

We found a Tesco Disney chicken roast dinner that said it was produced in the UK.  When we asked Tesco, they admitted the chicken came from Thailand.

We found Sainsbury's tinned pork and bacon meatballs that said it was produced in the UK, but didn't say where the pork or bacon originated.  What are the odds that it came from British farmers?

We found a Birdseye "Great British Menu" roast beef, which on the back admitted that the beef was imported.  Not quite so British, after all.

We even found a Marks & Spencer label emblazoning a "nation's favourite" sandwich with a union flag, but on the reverse admitting that the beef came from Brazil.  Brazil's favourite?

The food retailers will talk about voluntary agreements until our cows don't come home.

The time for talking is over.

So today I'm launching an 'Honest Food' Campaign for compulsory 'country of origin' labelling so that meat products that are labelled British can only come from animals born and bred in Britain.

We're publishing a Parliamentary Bill to make country of origin labelling mandatory.  I'm pleased to say that it's supported by your union, other industry organisations and by animal welfare organisations.

So here's my challenge to the Government - if you really want to stamp out misleading labelling, as the Secretary of State just said a few minutes ago, then get off your hands and support this Bill.

Last week we commissioned a new poll which shows that almost nine out of ten people want clear country of origin labelling.

And a massive 89 per cent believe that 'British' should mean genuinely 'British' - not just where the meat happened to be processed.

EU law allows us to introduce domestic labelling where our consumers are being misled.

And they are.

What's missing is political will.

The Spanish have secured country of origin labelling for asparagus.

The European Commission has recently agreed on mandatory origin labelling for olive oil on the basis that the current system is misleading.

Other EU countries fight for the interests of their consumers and their farming industry within the trading rules.  It's time for the British Government to show the same spine.

The role of a Government which says it cares about its farming industry is to fight for its farming industry.

And this Government could make a start by ensuring that public procurement of food is to British standards.  It's nothing short of scandalous that not a single rasher of bacon served to our armed forces is British.

If there are unfair rules they must be tested, challenged and changed.

I believe in markets, but markets have to work fairly.

That means honesty in labelling and benefits for consumers.

And a fair relationship between suppliers and retailers, too.

But it's not just on the supermarket shelves where farmers face unfair competition.

The costs of regulations imposed on British agriculture have become divorced from the benefits they deliver.

To be fair, most regulations emanate from Brussels, but by the time they reach our farms they usually have more than a few extra bells and whistles added to them.  And we have a very British tendency to abide by regulations - unlike some.

Now, if any of you have read my CV, you'll know that I'm a fan of free markets.

I dislike what Adam Smith called the folly of human laws.

That's why, to be honest, I've never liked the Common Agricultural Policy, which so far as I could see - at least before decoupling - performed the extraordinary hat-trick of costing consumers, damaging the environment and disadvantaging our own farmers, all at the same time.

I think people should be as free as possible.

I think the carrot works better than the stick.

And that a culture of responsibility is better than a culture of regulation.

Where people won't accept responsibility, we shouldn't shrink from government action.

That's why I believe that new food labelling laws are necessary.

But we must know when to trust farmers and avoid the mindset that without micro-management irresponsible methods are bound to prevail.

Under the Nitrates Directive farmers are bearing huge new costs of storing slurry, but the impact on pollution will be minimal.

That's not proportionate regulation.

And if someone can explain to me why the pesticides regulation is necessary, I'll happily listen to them.

I haven't heard a single convincing argument for it yet.

I don't want you to mistake me.

High farming standards matter.

They matter for the sake of the environment, and they matter for your industry's reputation, too.

A Conservative Government won't tolerate farming that flouts the rules.

But it's good outcomes that matter.  And if you can find the right means to achieve those outcomes without unnecessary interference, that's surely the best way.

I'm not a fan of the theory which sees regulators as the saints and farmers as the villains.

Any more than I believe that farmers should be able to do whatever they want.

I believe that a secure agriculture and a better environment actually go together.

That's what the principle of sustainability is about.

No-one wants to turn the clock back to the decades of damaging over-production - no-one.

And my call for a greater focus on national production should emphatically not be mistaken as a licence for the re-intensification of agriculture.

I strongly agree with Peter Kendall's view that farming needs to produce more but impact on the environment less.

We've had too many changing signals to British farming.  One minute there's a green light to produce more.  The next minute you're told to take land out of production.

I think we need a settled industry which is producing on a sustainable basis.

Where we're meeting more of our own needs.

Where links between local producers and consumers are stronger.

Where food miles are shorter.

Where environmental enhancement isn't an irritating condition of support, but an integral and valued part of every farm system.

So if you want to know what kind of agriculture I want to see, it's this.

Balanced farming.

Where producers are able to meet consumer demands within our environmental limits.

Where environmental benefits are pursued through incentives rather than penalties.

Where import and export tariffs are phased out ...

Trade-distorting support is dismantled ...

... and funding is directed at public goods which the market does not support.

And where there's a level - and truly competitive - playing field with our partners.

I don't belittle the challenges ahead for your industry.

They're considerable.

The single farm payment might last beyond 2012, but it can't and won't last forever.

The dairy sector faces changing consumer preferences.  I know this from my own constituency and it saddens me so much to see the loss of dairy farms.  Upland farming is especially fragile.

Animal health issues continue to beset the industry, not least in the form of bovine TB.

And let me just say one thing about TB.  Governments sometimes have to take tough decisions.  And this Government cannot go on ignoring the science, wringing its hands and allowing ten times as many cattle to be slaughtered as when it came to power.

So, yes, there are challenges.

But there's a tendency for all of us to see the problems rather than the opportunities.

And there are real opportunities ahead.

Farming could use its by-products to help produce localised energy and contribute to greater energy security.

The ever growing interest in food offers continuing potential for producers to re-connect with their market, often directly.

The public's love for the countryside, our landscape and wildlife is an equally promising opportunity for farming to link more strongly with our towns and cities.

Look at Italy's Agritourism scheme, which specifically promotes "tourism in the country which respects agriculture [and] the natural environment ..."

Government has an important role to play in helping to open these new avenues.

But at the end of the day, the success of farming depends on you.

On the tens of thousands of Britain's farmers who day in, day out, grow our food.

I think it's all too easy for politicians to forget that farms are businesses.

They need to make a profit.  You need to make a profit.

We've seen farm incomes recover, and sterling's weakness is clearly helping, but I fear this is concealing some real ongoing difficulties, particularly in the uplands.

As the farmer who won the lottery said when asked what he was going to do with his winnings: "Keep farming until it's all gone".

Farming is an extraordinary vocation.  I suspect most of you wouldn't swap your life on the land for anything.

But farming has to pay.  Politicians, and the many quangos which governments so readily set up - you might say too many - need to remember that.

As President Eisenhower once said: "Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."

I think we all know that the economic downturn is going to mean enormous challenges to ensure value for money in public spending in the future.

No doubt we'll have our disagreements over the years ahead.

Sometimes governments have to say no.

But I want you to know where my heart is.

It's in the countryside, and that means it's in farming.

I couldn't have a better team to support me, and in Jim Paice you couldn't have a safer pair of hands, or a politician who is more dedicated to the future of your industry.

Last year you heard from David Cameron who put food security firmly on the political agenda.

Today I'm saying that it's time for a government which shows a bit of support for British farming.

We keep hearing the Prime Minister talk about Britishness.

So let's hear it for the industry that feeds us.

Let's hear it for the people who actually make our green and pleasant land.

Let's hear it for British food and British farming.

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