Drive to feed the world, RASE president tells Norfolk farmers

Efficient, low-cost and large-scale food production will help to feed the nation and the world, said the retiring president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.

George Weston, group chief executive of Associated British Foods, welcomed about 100 fellow members to the world's largest beet sugar factory at Wissington, near Downham Market.

The challenge of providing 'abundant, cheap and safe' will rely on hard work, talent and efforts of everyone involved in farming and the food industry, he said.

Mr Weston, who hosted the RASE's president's visit, said that for many years, the policy focus of Britain's food and farming industry had revolved around 'the role of the farmer as environmental manager and the attraction of the small scale.'

'I only wish that we would remember more of the role we also play in feeding people and feeding them abundantly, cheaply and safely.

'Abundant, affordable food has been the rock on which so much of our living standards has been built over the last 150 years,' he added.

Having stood down as RASE president just a fortnight ago, Mr Weston wanted to 'help shine a little more light and spread more warmth on the efficient low-cost and large-scale part of food production in this country'.

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ABF, which acquired British Sugar in 1991, has invested more than �100m over the past 10 years at the Wissington complex.

Last year, the factory produced more than 500,000 tonnes of sugar or more than a quarter of the home-grown supply.

Mr Weston, who first visited Wissington in 1991, and became ABF's chief executive five years ago, described it as 'the grand-daddy of agricultural processing'.

'The successful continuation of our sugar industry in this country relies on the achievement of ever-greater efficiency for all parts of the supply chain.'

And farmers and suppliers had to continue to drive up efficiencies too, he added.

'Finally, our future as an industry also relies on us all being fairly and consistently treated by our regulators. But we all got so used to cheap food that sometimes, we even became critical or dismissive of it. That I think is quite shameful.

'Cheap, abundant food is one of the blessings of our lives and for all the price of food has risen over the last couple of years, I happen to think that food will remain abundant and cheap for all of us in this country and will become abundant and cheap for more and more of the Earth's population.

'This won't be an accident and it is not inevitable. It will be the result of the talents, efforts and hard work of all of us involved in large-scale efficient food production – be it on farm or in factories like this one.'

Mr Weston added: 'We are all incredibly proud of this site –it is the best sugar beet factory by a number of measures in the world. It converts sugar beet more cheaply than any other factory that we know.'

However, there were policy issues, which could threaten the industry's success.

Mr Weston was concerned that the 'legislative regime that accompanies agriculture in general and sugar in particular all over the world is turned against us in this country'.

And in the medium term, a proposed carbon tariff might disadvantage domestic sugar production, which the French will not have to pay, he said.

Further, Wissington, where Britain's first bioethanol factory was opened in 2007, was threatened by imported cut-price, blended product, which was not subject to the same rules as domestic producers.

'Sugar is nowhere a free market. We need our regulators to keep the playing field consistent and fair,' he added.