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Owen Paterson: Food Fighter

Owen Paterson wants the world to put its money where its mouth is and tuck into British food produce

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 


Owen Paterson is a man on a mission. A trade mission, in fact. At food fairs in Moscow or Shanghai or New York, he’s the embodiment of the PM’s determination to get every Whitehall department selling Britain’s merits in the ‘global race’.

Both a farmer and a businessman, it’s clear that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to underline the ‘food’ and ‘rural’ parts of his title, words he feels were too often neglected by his predecessors.

And, as he radiates enthusiasm for his task of selling British food at home and abroad, Paterson can’t resist a dig at New Labour’s own record at a department it created out of the old MAFF and John Prescott’s DETR. 

Sitting on his desk is a picture of the Defra ‘organogram’ he inherited: a spiderlike structure with more than 30 baffling interconnections. And this picture covers only one part of the Government advice the average farmer is faced with. “That’s the problem if you are trying to run a food business,” he points out. The organogram has pride of place in his office, a reminder to all who enter.

Paterson says that he’s stripped away the layers of gobbledegook and bureaucracy and boiled his department down to just four priorities. “Exports are a key part of our first priority here, which is to grow the rural economy. Our second priority is to improve the environment, and the other two are to protect the country from animal disease and protect the country from plant disease. Those are our priorities at Defra, all of which are intertwined.”

More than a year on since his move from Northern Ireland, the mood in Whitehall is that of a clearout and a gear change in Defra. He’s proud of the fact that he was the first Cabinet minister in a non-economic department to take his portfolio to Cabinet with a growth plan last November. The Chancellor was impressed and others followed.

Blooded by a string of issues from flooding to ash dieback, from horsemeat to TB, the Secretary of State has made clear to the network of 25,000 staff in Defra and its agencies that anything outside his four priorities is prime for the chop.

As he speaks, Paterson is clutching his latest policy paper that sums up his approach. A joint initiative with UKTI, the ‘Food and Drink International Action Plan’ points out that food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector with a turnover of over £90bn, employing around 400,000 workers. 

But Paterson sees a huge untapped potential for export among small and medium sized businesses, given that 90% are currently not exporting and primarily only with close European neighbours.

“As the world goes from 7 billion to 9 billion [in population], that presents a massive opportunity. So you have countries like China, where there is a real interest now in all aspects of Western culture, film, music, clothing, fashion – and food,” he says.

Last year, the scale of the challenge and opportunity faced by British firms was brought home to him as he took a big delegation to Shanghai’s food fair.

“We dropped in cold, unannounced, on a number of supermarkets in Shanghai and we found dairy products from Australia, New Zealand, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Denmark….nothing from the UK. And this year we’ll go back and there will be dairy products from the UK. One of the cheese specialists from Somerset, they’ve now got cheese into China.”

He was told that instead of bringing a bottle of wine to each other’s houses, Chinese will now bring a litre of foreign milk instead. “In China because they have sadly had some very difficult food scares, there’s a real interest in foreign products, particularly in dairy. New Zealanders are a long way ahead of us in China.”

But armed with a Food Is Great campaign launched last year, we are beginning to punch above our weight. “The campaign worked really well because you had the Royal Wedding, you had the Jubilee and you had the Olympics so there is a real interest in British goods and cachet and a trust in British quality.”

And the UK is catching up. Paterson took the largest ever British food company delegation to food fairs in not just China but also New York, Moscow and, most recently, Germany.

“In Moscow, we had an amazing show. As someone who has spent 25 years exporting, it is probably the most international show I’ve been to, with people from all over Russia, Western countries, Africa, South Asia, South America, just tremendous. We finalised the opening up of the Russian market to UK beef and lamb which we think will be worth about £100m over three years.

"You go to a top-class Russian restaurant and you’ll see it has cachet. We have a real story to tell because we have extraordinarily tight traceability systems now, we have a really good product which eats grass, not on feedlots and rigorous standards of production in our food plants.”

He says that Defra’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbons worked hard with the Russians to get the breakthrough. “You have to respect other countries’ safety and health standards, there have been food scares all around the world, and you have to work with them and we did,” he says.

But isn’t the quid pro quo for all this access to foreign markets that those same countries will want to sell more to us? Paterson is unabashed: “There’s the hidden hand and the law of comparative advantage. There are some things we are good at producing and there are some things they are. Personally speaking, I would challenge them that there are some very good British vodkas. They did give me some Russian vodka which I did bring back…which my [grown up] children appreciated!”

And for some products, such as Scottish whisky, the selling power in places from Moscow to Beijing is enormous. Even the old enemy in many a food war, the French, have buckled, Paterson reveals with glee.

“Scotch whisky is a real prestige product. I think people haven’t realised in the UK just what a big brand that is worldwide. So for example, I can’t resist telling you that there is more Scotch whisky drunk every month by Frenchmen in France than there is French Cognac drunk by Frenchmen and women in France in a year.”

But he’s serious about the trade opportunity in even bigger markets. “One of the discussions in China and in Russia is working with them on geographical indicators so protection of the brand and the status and the integrity of something like Scotch whisky is incredibly important. And the Chinese have done great work on that. I had a really good meeting there, where they closed down 23 illegal stills – and that is where we at Government level can help.”

The minister was at the world’s largest food fair last week, the Anuga fair in Cologne. “We had a really good evening looking out over the Rhine. About 300 people turned up. I talked solidly to people for three hours, almost entirely on areas where we can help: health certification, veterinary certificates, import certification, that is where we as a Government can really help people. I think the message is getting through that we are massively onside. 

“And we have some brilliant examples. That week I was up in Aberlour [in Scotland] and had been to Walkers’ Shortbread, who are a stunning example of how you can do it. Jim Walker and his brother and sister took over their family bakery, employing 16 people. They now employ 1,600 people. They’ve taken it to £124m, £50m of which is exports. You cannot go anywhere abroad, you can’t even get out of Manchester airport without seeing a Walkers’ stand. They are completely brilliant.

“If you went to those supermarkets in Shanghai, you’d find Walkers’ shortbread. What we try to do is to really trumpet those successes. It can be done with real determination.”

Again, he clearly loves flying the flag, pointing out that British sparkling wine keeps winning blind tastings “again and again”. In Cologne, “we had British beer and you are in the heart of one of the world’s great beer producing countries, with the Reinheitsgebot [German beer purity laws].” 

Paterson returns to Shanghai next month and he’s pleased with the progress since his last trip. UK pork exports to China have increased 591% since last year, for example. Yet there is an even bigger opportunity for both our firms and the British environment.

“They want to buy prestige products like whisky, which is tremendous. But the Chinese also like eating things which we throw away here. So if you take chickens’ feet, last year we had a big Northern Ireland poultry company, Moy Park, who kill four and a half million chickens a week. All their feet at the moment, that’s nine million chickens’ feet, go to landfill. 

“They could be sold to China, where you’ll see rows and rows of beautifully packed chickens’ feet. If we could get chickens’ feet and other offal into China, we would add 15% to the value of a bird. So there are massive commercial reasons for doing this so all round it’s gain, gain, gain. Instead of stuff going to landfill, because we are always looking for ways to reduce waste, we are selling this as a product to people who want to buy it as we don’t in this country.”

It’s an important, one might even say offally important, market. “Pigs trotters is another example. Again, that’s product we turn our backs on in this country but it’s an awfully big product for China. It’s called ‘the fifth quarter’. Somewhere like Russia is important, they will buy a lot of offal, livers and kidneys.”

One reason that British goods have a cachet is our high standards of ‘traceability’, Paterson stresses. 

“We have now got incredibly rigorous standards of traceability. That is key in the reassurance in these markets. We have then got very, very rigorous standards in our food processing plants. And on top of that we have really good products. The three go together. So you very much sell the three strengths: you can really trust us,” he says.

British vets have worked closely with their counterparts as part of the trade drive. 

While at the Russian Institute for Plant Health this year, Paterson realised they were monitoring 85 different plant diseases. “A lot of this stuff comes straight out of central Asia, they are these vast territories straddling central Asia, coming into Europe. It’s crazy we don’t work with them. They have got this long history of academic research, they’ve got top flight scientific institutions. And all that shows that we very much respect their research, they respect ours. And by working together it all builds up confidence.”

Protecting British livestock from disease is what also lies behind his approach to bovine TB, seen as clearly the main issue for the dairy and beef industry. As for the horsemeat scandal, Paterson says: “I think we came out of it very strongly. This was a straight fraud on the public, this was criminal activity. People call these food chains, what it showed was that these are not food chains, they are amazingly complex food networks and the current system of European regulation is too dependent on trust. There’s not enough testing.”

He ordered a review of the food supply chain from Professor Chris Elliott, who is due to deliver an interim report this December. “There should be more intelligence-based testing, risk based testing and then more random testing. Someone should have spotted there was a big discrepancy between the price of horsemeat and beef and said ‘hang on, is someone trying to do something here?’”

As well as focusing ruthlessly on Defra’s priorities, Paterson is keen to build on another big export opportunity: agritechnology in general, and genetic modification in particular.

He says there is “tremendous” potential for the UK to become a global leader in the field. GM crops have been used safely around the globe, he says. “There are 17 million farmers cultivating 170m hectares which is 12% of the world’s arable land, which is seven times the surface area of the UK and not a single person has come to me with a report of any health problem. The fact that every single Member of the House of Commons has been on holiday to America and has come back happy, healthy and sane shows that this is a technology which can feed the world. It is only one of the technologies. We should not get too hung up, it’s not the only solution but it is a very valuable technology.”

The benefits of GM are several, not least helping with the ‘cost of living’ problems of the ordinary consumer. “It would be good to grow some GM crops in this country because some of these products would be cheaper whichhelps our consumers, who are under a lot of pressure. We all know the cost of living and the cost of food has become an issue.”

He adds: “But there are massive environmental gains. There are huge reductions in spraying…there would be massive savings in pretty strong chemicals which we spray the whole time, huge savings in diesel, huge savings in compaction of soil, there’s no doubt about it. That’s a straight help to agriculture.”

He and David Willetts unveiled a new industrial strategy for agritechnology this summer but he wants to go much further. “Agritech is absolutely a massive opportunity for us. We have top class research institutions, like Rothamsted [in Hertfordshire] and those guys in East Anglia [the John Innes Centre]. When I was in Germany I was talking to other companies and I would love them to come here. 

“This doesn’t have to be GM. We are looking at a conventional wheat development which could increase the yield of wheat by 25%, I would love that to be done here. I would like the UK to become the leading nation in Europe for agritechnology. I would really like to go a whole step further. That is an enormously important industry in its own right.”

And as for GM’s acceptability among consumers, Paterson scents a change. “I thought it was very interesting when some of the main retailers [Tesco and others] felt that they could no longer tell their consumers that they were selling meat products which had not consumed GM material at some stage because nearly all our animal feed now has containedsome GM. I talked to the Brazilian minister, he told me that 90% of Brazilian soya is now GM. 

“Of course it is undetectable, it is impossible to detect. If an animal, a chicken or a pig has eaten GM material, you can’t tell. I thought the fact that the public didn’t react to that was very interesting.”

Paterson is also keen to point out that ultimately the buck stops with him on decisions on how to respondto the scientific advice in his department. And GM is a clear example where he wants the UK to push the EU into action.

“Time and again, products pass through the very rigorous scientific process and then get stuck at the political level. So we are talking at member state level to other member states to see if we can get this moving. Because at the moment Europe is going to fall further and further behind.”

From bovine TB to GM, he makes clear the science is only part of the picture. “Ultimately you have to make the call, but I see myself assomeone who has lived in the countryside all his life and you are constantly in the countryside bombarded with scientific advice,” he says. 

“So if you ever had anything to do with animals, you had conflicting veterinary advice and ultimately you have to make the decision: is that vet right or is the other vet right? So I’m used to, completely accustomed to dealing with scientific advice but ultimately you have to make a political decision. There is no absolute right in a scientific decision. We have some good advisers here, who I respect enormously, but obviously I have got my own sources outside, my own experience which I have to draw on.”

Global warming is another area where Paterson has been unafraid to go with the herd, telling the Conservative conference recently that there could even be benefits from climate change: fewer winter deaths and a longer growing season for farmers.

His brother-in-law is Matt [now Lord] Ridley, a scientist with a strong scepticism about global warming. “In DEFRA we are in charge of adaptation. So at the moment we are getting changes in rainfall and we have got a massive programme. As a Government, we will be spending more in this spending round on flood defences than any preceding government. So we adapt and farmers are flexible, they do adapt to circumstances, but you need to use technology,” he says.

Have any farmers mentioned the benefits of the planet getting warmer, and a longer growing season? “Yes, some have. But there are downsides, like excessive rain, which means we have to do more to adapt.”

From the need for more food exports to the opportunities offered by GM crops, adaptation certainly seems to be Owen Paterson’s watchword. And Whitehall seems to be finally adapting to his no-nonsense approach. Organogram or not.  

 

PATERSON ON…FOODIE CULTURE

“It’s really interesting how food has moved on in this country. We have far more cheeses now than the French do.

PATERSON ON...BRITISH VARIETY

“ London is now the most cosmopolitan city in the world by a mile, it’s extraordinary the number of food varieties in London.”

PATERSON ON…THE HORSEMEAT SAGA

“we did more testing than any other country across Europe. And our results showed there was actually a tiny, tiny amount in this country. But fraud is unacceptable.”

PATERSON ON…GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF

“I watch the racing…Channel4 At the Races!

 

 

 

 

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