- An exclusive address from Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
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While the UK was once famous for fish and chips and pie and mash, these days most would agree our culinary offerings extend far and wide. In fact, we’ve now taken our place as one of the most exciting food cultures in the world. We are as well known for our Michelin starred restaurants as we are for our traditional produce – whether that’s Welsh lamb, salmon from the highlands of Scotland or clotted cream from Devon. What’s more, we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare, quality and safety in the world, meaning when consumers choose British they can have complete confidence in the food they buy. It was the opportunities presented by this fantastic reputation that meant I was so delighted to be appointed DEFRA Secretary.
Britain’s changing food culture is thanks in large part to our successful start-ups, budding entrepreneurs and up-and-coming producers and as we prepare to leave the EU, we have a unique opportunity to build on this success. Small and medium-sized enterprises account for 96 per cent of businesses in the food manufacturing sector, employing over 120,000 people and bringing around £22 billion to the economy every year. Our SMEs are well placed to make an impact – for example we’ve seen a fantastic range of small craft beer suppliers springing up in recent years. These microbreweries use British barley, wheat and hops, benefiting producers across the whole supply chain.
I recently visited a small microbrewery in Northamptonshire where I saw first-hand how the demand for locally-brewed beer has soared. The number of microbreweries has more than doubled in the last five years – a trend reflected across the country. There are now more than 1,500 microbreweries in the UK, and I’m confident this growth will continue. At the same time, it’s quickly become clear to me government has a role to help our SMEs develop, grow and showcase the best of British.
In October, I visited the SIAL food fair in Paris, where I met some of the sector’s best and brightest. From industry heavyweights such as Walkers Shortbread, to rising stars like crisp makers Ten Acre, there was a remarkable amount of talent on show.
We now need to make the most of our excellent reputation for food and drink and harness the export opportunities that come with it. That’s why I recently launched the UK Food and Drink International Action Plan, which aims to forge stronger economic links with key countries around the world, tapping into new markets like Japan and Latin America and bringing a £2.9 billion boost to the economy over the next five years.
Our SMEs have an important role to play in this. I want them to feel confident to take the next step into international markets and have access to mentoring and support to give them the skills and confidence to begin exporting. Fever Tree Drinks is one example of a start-up now rivalling the very best. They have capitalised on the global demand for the classic gin and tonic, with their exports growing from £16 million in 2013 to £38 million two years later. They are now the UK’s largest exporter of soft drinks and their tonics are served in seven of the world’s top 10 restaurants, including El Bulli in Spain. There’s also gourmet popcorn maker Joe and Seph’s. This family-business started small but is now selling its snacks to more than 20 countries around the world, including the USA and Middle East. In 2015, exports accounted for more than 20 per cent of its business – and the company is predicting this will reach 30 per cent by 2018.
Growing our food exports and building demand for the great British brand overseas will continue to be a major priority. In leaving the EU, we’ve been handed a once in a generation opportunity to take Britain forward and to establish new trading relationships right across the globe. I also want smaller producers to have the tools they need to create and innovate to compete internationally. There are some incredible projects and ideas out there and often they just need a helping hand to get off the ground.
That’s why I recently launched the Food Innovation Network, linking ambitious companies with the latest scientific knowledge and expertise, to foster the innovation that will help us stand out from the crowd.
Through an online portal, businesses will be able to tap into expert advice on complex issues such as intellectual property rights and developing new technology. A network coordinator will act as a ‘matchmaker’, joining up companies with the expertise they need for any aspect of their business – from advice on new packaging and waste management, to test kitchens and laboratories to help them launch new products onto the market.
Going forward, my department will be publishing two long-term plans – one for food, farming and fisheries, and one for the environment. To develop these plans we will soon launch a consultation, giving everyone a chance to share their views and ambitions for the future, either in writing or at the many stakeholder meetings we’re planning around the country. This is a once in a generation opportunity to look at new ideas, from market access and how we can increase food production, to protecting and enhancing our natural environment. So, there is a lot to be optimistic about and in my first six months as Environment Secretary, I’ve met many inspirational entrepreneurs, seen innovative ideas taking off and witnessed the hard work and dedication that makes this sector such a success.There is no doubt our food and drink industry has a very bright future.
This letter was published in the February issue of Speciality Food, available to download for free here
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