23 April 2018, 03:24 AM
  • The newly elected president of the NFU talks policy, food chains and how to help
The Interview: Minette Batters

I’ve been fortunate to meet many people who have changed the way that I think and do things throughout my life. There are some people you meet who really do make a difference to you, from all walks of life, and as I become older I listen more. I’ve always tried to improve myself and what I stand for, and continue to learn, and listening is the most important lesson I’ve had.

Nothing is a given in life, and you only get back what you put in – that thought keeps me focused. It’s important that I stand for what I believe in, and in my role it’s made clear that my work isn’t a popularity contest but about being straight with people. I respect that in other people, and I hope they respect that in me. Be a grafter, and be prepared to dig deep – whatever you’re doing, sometimes you have to dig deep and knuckle down. The life lesson is that you’re always better for working hard.

Russia has gone from being one of the biggest producers of wheat at 60 million tonnes per year to 85 million. China is the biggest global player and is producing ever more wheat. In this volatile world, are we happy to decrease our self sufficiency and rest on our laurels, or work hard to maintain and grow our capability.

The strengths of the UK’s food industry today are the very short, safe and secure supply chains that we have. It’s only really when you compare it to the car industry that you realise how lucky we are; when they’re talking about Brexit being a great opportunity to build British supply chains again, we have all invested time and resources in building our own. We have the safest and securest supply chains in the world, and we must work to maintain and build on this – we all take food safety as a given, but as we start to globalise the food system far more it’s not something that can be taken for granted. Our independently-audited supply chain, Red Tractor, the traceability of food… we’re world-leading. We can certainly get better, but we’re starting from a good place.

However, over the years Britain as a nation has stopped valuing food in the way we used to; it’s a commodity these days, and not given the respect it deserves. This has repercussions. Take the issue of food waste as an example. We’re only going to make the change that needs to be made if we start to value food more. To be wasting 10 million tonnes of food every year at a value of £16 billion is just unsustainable, and it’s a great sadness that this is happening. We all talk about people getting out on the farm and understanding more about the food they’re eating; farmers and businesses close to the grass roots of food production need to be getting out there and telling their story – we need to have a far greater engagement between growers and consumers.

I’m very optimistic about the future of the food industry, but it does need a total political rethink. Across the political spectrum they will tell you that food security is not important – we’re a wealthy nation and can therefore afford to import our food – but I feel very strongly that we need to make a new case for food security, how we produce food and how we look after the very large population that we have. I fear that despite everything that I say about our safe, secure supply chains, we need to be looking at this in a commercial way and making sure that we keep producing food sustainably. I worry that these issues are not taken seriously politically at the moment because it didn’t particularly matter when we were part of the EU with everything we needed on our doorstep, but that’s changed.

Read the entire interview in the latest issue of Speciality Food, available to download for free here.