Let farmers feed the nation, urges NFU president

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall has warned that Britain's food trade gap will widen even further unless action is taken to reverse the trend.

And government has a vital role to play in ensuring that farmers and growers can rise to the food production challenge of the next 20 years.

Mr Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, said: 'The UK's own population is set to grow from today's 62m to over 70m by 2030. If home production levels stay the same, we'll become ever more dependent on imports.

As it is, we're already buying in more than 40pc of our food, up from around 25pc 20 years ago. With eight million more mouths to feed we'll be edging towards one in every two meals coming, in effect, from food grown abroad.

'I'm not suggesting we need to take an isolationist approach to food production; we're a trading nation and trade is also vital to our food security, it ensures variety, and is an opportunity for the industry too. But if we're going to ensure food supplies for UK consumers it is in our national interest to produce more in the UK.

'It is not just me saying that. It's a formal objective of the new government, set out in black and white in Defra's business plan. And food security - at least on a global scale - is on the radar elsewhere in government too.

'Research and development spend was protected from the worst of the cuts and the new cross-research-council Global Food Security programme has been prioritised in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills' budget allocations announced in December.

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'What worries me is not the Government's commitment to ensuring big picture, global food security, but its commitment to ensuring that local food supply here at home is encouraged and enabled.

'A narrow localist agenda could pose a serious threat to the growth we need, whether from state-of-the-art polytunnels for soft-fruit production, high-output glasshouses for vegetables, or the latest in lower carbon, high welfare, pig and poultry units.

'Localism needs leadership otherwise it is nothing more than a recipe for Nimbyism. That is why it is absolutely crucial that the government includes food production as a strategic priority in its new national planning framework.

'This is a government which is shouting from the rooftops that it wants growth; our farms can help deliver that growth, right across the country. It's a government that wants to strip away red tape that stifles entrepreneurship, and - as businesses - we're enthusiastic, if realistic, about that too.

'Farmers are ready to rise to the challenge and invest in their businesses. Let 2011 be the year in which the government takes its own commitment to increasing food production seriously and - instead of relying on imports to fill the food gap - puts in place a policy framework that will enable Britain's producers to keep up with demand.

'Planning is one example, and a litmus test of how seriously the government takes this commitment. '

BLOB Defra's published statistics show a decline in self-sufficiency in all foods from 75pc 20 years ago (1991) to 59pc in 2009.

Defra secretary Caroline Spelman told the Commons last month that in 2009 the UK imported indigenous food - food that could be grown in season in the UK – worth about �15bn. Total imports of food, feed and drink in the same period were valued at �32.5bn.