Environment Secretary speech on the future of food and farming

Elizabeth Truss sets out her vision for the role of open data in the future of food, farming and the natural environment

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

Links to photos, audio and video files are at the end of this transcript.

It’s great to be here with you here at Unruly.

What am I doing here in the heart of Tech City? Isn’t Defra about cowsheds, flood barriers, and the great outdoors?

Well, it is partly, I have to admit, because I want Unruly to open a branch in the heart of rural Britain. Last year, they opened in Singapore, they are already in LA, Seoul, Dubai and Paris. So why aren’t they in Camborne or Kendal? In more and more of the countryside, businesses are just as wired up as they are in London.

And I am also here because Unruly has shown what you can achieve when you connect data, technology and ideas.

The way it uses billions of pieces of data on consumer habits and reactions to online videos has opened a whole new front for marketing in the social media age.

Just imagine what we could achieve if we could harness that potential in food, in the environment, in the countryside—think of the potential for bettering lives, for powering the economy and improving our environment.

And I want us to pioneer that new world in those areas.

Now of course government will always have a vital role dealing with age-old threats. It’s worrying about the risks of flooding and disease outbreaks that keeps me awake at night, just as it did my predecessors in the past—like the Cattle Plague Department, set up by the Home Office in 1865 to deal with an outbreak of rinderpest.

Dealing with emergencies has long been a major responsibility for government—like getting the Thames cleaned up when the Great Stink of 1858 nearly forced parliament out of London; and a century later when the deaths of thousands in the Great Smog of 1952 led to the Clean Air Act.

In this job you can sometimes feel like a cross between Noah and James Herriot.

But sometimes that emergency mindset can mean the attitude to nature and food has been to ban, to control, and to certify.

Not long ago, some staff at Defra were moving a cupboard and out toppled some old papers, some import certificates from the 1940s.

That dusty cupboard was like a window in time, to an era of rationing, production targets, then the quotas and the butter mountains.

From their oak-panelled offices, Secretaries of State would fix prices, sign off import permits, decree which parts of the country to plough up or, as one predecessor did, demand the pelts of 10 million moles for an export drive.

That world does now lie behind us. Technology and globalisation have decentralised decisions and ideas. It is individuals now who do things and change things, not just ministers in Whitehall, and we need to unleash that spirit of enterprise. I believe the countries that succeed are the ones that give space for people to take the initiative and create the ideas that bring profit and progress.

The economic opportunity of this is huge. There is a reason why Silicon Valley has invested more than $450m in the last two years in food start-ups; why the world’s most far-sighted investors, like Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing, have spotted the opportunity; and there is a reason why environmental data and geospatial data are the top two categories of data in demand by companies, they are modern black gold.

Global demand for food is projected to grow 60 per cent by 2050. Britain’s scientific know-how, flair for innovation and quality put us in a superb position to take advantage.

I want us to be more successful at growing food exports than Ireland or New Zealand; I want us to be better than the US at opening up our data; and I want us to be more innovative than Israel or Estonia, both of which lead the world in digital government.

By seizing the opportunities, we can become a truly one-nation economy, bringing the productivity of the countryside up to the levels of our towns and cities. Closing that 17% gap would by itself wipe out 15% of Britain’s productivity shortfall compared with the G7.

Only last year, we launched a campaign in New York celebrating the British countryside. Its timeless beauty is recognised around the world, celebrated by artists and writers from Constable to the Brontes, from David Hockney to Antony Gormley. For centuries, this has made it a place people want to live.

The countryside is both beautiful and a hive of activity and I want to secure its future as a healthy, thriving place of opportunity where working people want to live and bring up their families.

A healthy natural environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand in today’s world. It is no accident that nature is improving most quickly in some of the most prosperous countries like Switzerland.

And that as countries become wealthier, like China, they seek out the latest environmental innovations to prevent smog and clean up water supplies.

For businesses, cutting waste and pollution means cutting costs. And by pinpointing application of pesticides and fertilisers, farmers spend less on chemicals and put less of them into the ground and into the air.

Planting more trees and making our air cleaner are vital in themselves and are at the heart of our plans for improving the environment, but they are also crucial to today’s economy.

Britain has the most beautiful, varied and evocative landscapes in the world.

The vast skies and wild coasts of East Anglia; the mountains of the Lake District; the ancient woodlands perfect for getting lost in at the weekend; and the parks that are the green oases of our cities. Is there anywhere quite like Roundhay Park in Leeds?

These places are our prize assets, just as much as the Severn Bridge, the Shard or Crossrail.

They are integral to who we are, to why people want to live in Britain and to our future success as a country.

Today’s world-beating economies are places that unleash entrepreneurs and idea, and I want the people who make their living from food, farming and the environment to have the freedom, the data, the research and the people to think big, to take risks and to build profitable businesses.

I want to see new people and capital attracted into this area of huge potential to help drive our economy forward.

The data revolution is powering wealth creation and innovation here in Tech City thanks to companies like Unruly.

We’ve seen so many consumer industries turned around by data, unrecognisable from what they were before — Fashion with companies like Net a Porter, travel booking with Trip Advisor, taxis with Uber.

And I want the jolt of energy these disruptors brought to their markets to fizz through food and farming, and the way we look at the natural environment.

Defra has more broad, varied and rich data than any other government department.

It’s not surprising when you consider that we have been tracking animal movements since the second world war, we’ve been monitoring the rural economy since Domesday, and since the 1940s, surveying family eating habits, like the arrival of spaghetti Bolognese.

Earlier this week at Harwell in Oxfordshire where the satellite imagery from Copernicus is creating the world’s largest data store. On the day I was there, its latest satellite blasted off from French Guiana.

Over the next year we will be making 8,000 datasets publicly available, in the biggest data giveaway that Britain has ever seen.

Tech City people, developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, NGOs, anyone with a great idea, will have full and open access.

This has the potential to bring billions of pounds to our economy.

And think what we can do with it. Wine lovers will be able to sip English bubbly made from the sweetest grapes because growers have found the best soild and slopes; canoeists will be able to check an app to see how fast their local rivier is flowing.

Think also of the environmental improvements we can secure. I am proud that in our manifesto we made a commitment to protect sensitive marine areas around Britain and our overseas territories. In the Pitcairn Islands we will create the world’s biggest maritime nature reserve, protecting some of the planet’s most important species.

At Harwell, I saw for myself the system that will allow us to detect live by satellite if any fishing vessel in the area is acting suspiciously. The same technology means that when shoppers buy their fish at Sainsbury’s they will know it has been tracked to sustainable sources. There are huge opportunities in the area of environmental protection.

And think about how this will enable us as a government to do more for less. We will be able to survey the country’s crops without tramping the fields, meaning farmers get less bother from government inspectors.

It means we can cut down on red tape and save money both for businesses and taxpayers. We are already doing that by reducing the number of farm inspections. We will cut duplication, ensuring farmers only have to deal with a single inspection force rather than numerous overlapping bodies.

And as we draw up plans for improving the natural environment, including our air and water quality, think of the opportunity that data will bring—by sharing it with organisations like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, we will enable them to monitor the health of our most precious places, and enthuse people, especially children, about the wonders of nature. I saw earlier this month how the Norfolk Wildlife Trust are doing exactly that at Cley Marshes on the county’s north coast, where they are rebuilding hundreds of acres of wetland in one of the world’s prime bird-watching locations.

I think we can also harness the pioneers of Britain’s food revolution, like the chefs, farmers and Food Stars, the 50 innovative small producers we celebrated recently at Downing Street.

I want food and farming to be a top destination for high-flying graduates, as prestigious as medicine, as fun and stimulating as the gaming industry and as cutting-edge as Tech City.

And our reforms are producing some of the best schools anywhere. And we are going to treble the number of apprentices in food and farming over the course of the next five years.

We already know the ambition and quality of food and drink in this country—and investors know it too. That is why one third of all of our foreign investment in UK manufacturing has gone into food and drink.

Multinationals like Mondelez and Nestle carry out some of their most important global research in this country and Britain brings more new food and drink products to the market each year than France and Germany put together.

From the precision-farming and hands-free tractors of Riviera Produce in Cornwall to the award-winning Poskitts carrots in Yorkshire, we already have some of the world’s best farmers.

I want them to have access to the latest science and technology to raise productivity and our new Food Enterprise Zones—17 of them and counting—will take produce right from field to fork.

I want us to have real ambition about how much food we can export. According to the CBI, Britain has the potential to export £7.4bn more a year, a 40% increase on what we are doing at the moment. People around the world know just how high our standards of quality, food safety and animal welfare are. We’re now ranked joint top alongside New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland by World Animal Protection.

I want to see shopkeepers from Rio to Seoul stocking and selling the Great British brand.

We will promote our superb food and drink through the new Great British Food Unit, open overseas markets, and place food counsellors in our embassies like we have in Beijing.

Most of all, we are going to up our ambitions as a country with an industry-led 25-year food and farming plan.

We know that in the future the countries that will be successful are the ones that unleash all the talents they have wherever they are to be found.

The countryside is as good at generating new businesses as our towns and cities; it is home to a quarter of all our firms, yet only has 18% of our population. Computer programming and consultancy are among the fastest-growing professions there.

This government is on the side of working people in the countryside. And it is my mission over the next five years to make it as easy to open a business in Shropshire as it is here in Shoreditch.

That’s why it’s so important improving rural road and rail and bringing near-universal access to broadband and mobile. You can already see high-tech companies in Cornwall taking advantage of its position as Britain’s best-connected county to attract top-notch staff with the promise of a great beach lifestyle.

Thanks to technology, wonderful local producers like Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese and our booming craft cider industry like Perry’s Cider in Somerset, can sell direct to Japan. And we’ll make it easier for people to keep having those great drinks at their local pub. Our community pub loan fund will help groups wanting to buy their local.

We are charging ever faster into the future, propelled by the forces of technology and globalisation.

Never have the opportunities for our food and farming been greater and never has the natural environment been more important.

Few countries in the world are as well placed as Britain to reap full advantage—we have some of the world’s greatest food and finest landscapes, some of its most far-sighted investors and most creative entrepreneurs.

Over the past five years, we have seen Silicon Roundabout expand into what we see here today, Tech City. Over the next five years, I want to see its pioneering spirit spreading out further. I want to see Tech Country.

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Defra Secretary of State: Vision for open data, food and farming - highlights

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Defra Secretary of State: Vision for open data, food and farming

Published 25 June 2015
Last updated 29 June 2015 + show all updates
  1. Added a link to an edited highlights video of the event.
  2. Added links to audio and video versions of the speech.
  3. First published.