Michael Gove's speech to Oxford Farming Conference

by Jack Ward

What was relevant to the Fresh Produce Industry

There was very little in Michael Gove’s speech that was specific to the fresh produce sector, but the overall direction of travel and the sense of belief in the sector was encouraging.

There was a lot of talk of a fourth agricultural revolution - accelerating technological advances; more sophisticated analysis of big data, robotics etc, all enabling the industry to improve productivity by reducing labour, applying inputs more precisely and using fewer natural resources.

Vertical farming seemed to score highly, with the Secretary of State arguing for vegetables grown in temperature, moisture and nutrition-controlled indoor environments to guarantee improvements in yield while at the same time limiting environmental externalities. He added that vertical farms not only minimise land use but can be located close to the urban population centres they serve. No mention of the capital investment needed to purchase or rent land close to centres of population and or the cost of building vertical farms and how any investment would be justified by the limited returns from heavily discounted fresh produce lines.

Returning to a more positive note, the Secretary of State recognised the opportunities that lie ahead if the industry embraces the concept of a fourth revolution. This, he suggested, could enable the United Kingdom to secure its place as a major global food producer. He was very clear that food production has been a success story for the UK - the biggest manufacturing sector contributing £113 billion to the economy every year. He also pointed out that consumers have benefited from the enterprise and innovation of food producers, giving them access to a wider choice of high-quality food than ever before and at the same time reducing food costs dramatically.

He went on to say that while consumers have enjoyed the benefits of increased efficiency from British farming, farmers and growers have not reaped anything like the same benefits. Compared with a generation ago, farmers and growers receive a lower share of the money that the public spend with supermarkets and other food retailers. Why? Because post-farm gate innovation and supermarkets offering consumers added value have reduced the percentage of the final price which comes back to the grower.

So as growers become ever more efficient and productivity improves, how should the system ensure that the UK has a profitable agricultural sector and at the same time delivers value for money prices for good food?

According to Michael Gove, part of the answer is greater transparency. The more information a discerning public have when making consumer choices - the better markets work.  And if markets aren’t working because some players are operating unfairly or anti-competitively, then Government should intervene.

There was more mention of a Defra food strategy led by Defra’s lead non-executive director and food entrepreneur, Henry Dimbleby.  The plan is for him to visit farms and food producers and work with people across the industry to ensure Government asks the right questions.

There was brief reference to the Agriculture Bill, in particular provision for payments to improve productivity and support collaboration.

It is easy to be cynical about these major set piece speeches but given the choice of backing the sector or turning away from it, the industry has clearly got something of a champion compared with previous occupants of the Department. He finished on a rallying cry, calling for a new ambitious Food Strategy, rising investment in agritech, world-leading centres of agricultural science and a new generation of entrepreneurs. Armed with these essentials, he argued that the UK can be the vanguard nation for this century’s New Agricultural Revolution.

I have to say that I have heard a lot less enthusiastic speeches about the future for the industry.

Jack Ward

CEO

British Growers