While Defra prepares for rising global temperatures, Environment Secretary Liz Truss is more immediately focused on trying to warm more tech graduates to the food and farming industries – and engineer a thaw in relations between the Tories and the north

It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it. Since her promotion to the Cabinet last year, Liz Truss has been on a round of official visits to make a bon vivant jealous: a craft brewery in Ilkley, a chocolate factory in York, a cider press in Somerset. “I do do some tough work, honestly!” she protests, with a laugh. “Drinking beer at nine in the morning was just for the photographs!”

The job of Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs certainly hasn’t been a picnic – gourmet or otherwise – in recent years. From horsemeat scandals to badger culls, from forest sell-off U-turns to near-biblical floods, life at Nobel House has been a challenge. But on her arrival after last summer’s reshuffle, Truss was determined to bring a new optimism to the ill-fated department. The move cemented her reputation as one of the Tory party’s risen stars (still only 39, she got to the Cabinet after just four years as an MP) and one of David Cameron’s fresh female voices in Government. And with just a few months to go before the election, she’s bristling with enthusiasm about her role.

If the political storms circling Defra have dominated the news in recent years, the department can also point to one undisputed British success story: food. The UK’s food and farming sector is booming, generating more than £100bn a year for the first time. Last year a record 150 countries imported British produce from more than 2,000 firms, taking total exports to almost £19bn. Sales of British wine, beer, biscuits, cheese – and even chillies – have soared.

In fact, the renaissance in British food has been so striking that the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was even moved recently to warn his compatriots of an ‘Anglo-Saxon plot’ to oust Gallic gastronomy from its position as world leader. “And he’s absolutely right,” Truss tells our sister magazine The House from her Smith Square office. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. I think we can do it better than the French, and everyone else.”

 "I want consumers to have a choice, I’m not about telling consumers what to do." 

The “inferiority complex” which has traditionally afflicted British cuisine is on the way out, she says, replaced by a new optimism focused on quality, modernisation and innovation. “When I was growing up, posh food was seen as Italian or French food. British food was not up there. But now we’re seeing the opposite,” she explains. “One of our main strengths is our innovation. We produce 16,000 new products a year, more than France and Germany put together. I went to the SIAL food fair in Paris, and the range of products our producers are producing rivals anywhere else. We had things like lentil crisps, flavoured popcorn, exciting cheese varieties – including ones with curries. I didn’t see that on the other countries’ stands. I think there is something about the British mindset – that creativity – that does well. People want to buy into it. And a lot of producers I speak to realise that putting the British flag on their labels is a real sales opportunity.”

But while the rest of the world is beginning to put its money where its mouth is, there is still some way to go in changing perceptions towards British food here at home, she continues, citing English sparkling wine as an example. “Some people have erroneously believed that other countries’ products are better,” she says. “But we’ve hit £100m in terms of sparkling wine sales overseas. And our wines have won more awards than any other country. So move over champagne.”

In her conference speech last year, the Environment Secretary described it as a “disgrace” that the UK still imported two-thirds of its apples, two-thirds of its cheese and nine-tenths of its pears, despite the growth in popularity of British varieties abroad. So has the minister changed her own shopping habits when it comes to buying British? “I have, I’ve become a bit obsessive about it,” she chuckles. “My daughter polices it. Of course there are some things we don’t produce in Britain. I want consumers to have a choice, I’m not about telling consumers what to do. But I do think we produce fantastic products here, and we’ve kind of underrated ourselves for a long time.”

Truss’s patriotism, combined with her scrutiny of the grocer’s basket, have echoes of her political heroine, Margaret Thatcher. Although she was only born the same year Mrs T became Tory party leader, it’s perhaps no surprise that comparisons have been made with another blonde, northern woman with an Oxford degree and a passion for maths and science.

As Education Minister, Truss made her name pushing STEM subjects and traditional rigour. And at Defra, she’s determined to highlight the science and technology that increasingly drive the rural economy. “My mission is to completely change the perception of food and farming,” she says. “Because it is seen at the moment, by people who aren’t involved in the industry, as quite low-tech, as kind of ‘hairnets and wellies’. I’ve spent a lot of time both in my constituency and around the country and it’s completely the opposite. It’s very much based on science; in fact, everything in this department is. From the analysis of floods to animal and plant diseases, it’s all the latest science.”

Truss is proud of the UK having some of “the world’s leading scientists” in places like the John Innes Centre in Norfolk and the Food and Environment Research Agency in York, which look at advanced plant science. “And we’ve got some world leading companies like Nestle, which just have incredible operations. I’ve been to the Nestle chocolate factory…”

"If you think about the whole food chain, whether it’s Sainsbury’s hiring coders or whatever, it’s a different profile of jobs."

Realising how much fun that sounds, she laughs, adding: “It’s a difficult job isn’t it?” But the factory’s hi-tech meant she didn’t get a chance to get her hands on the sweet stuff.

“I went to the Aero production line, where there’s no human touching of the chocolate, it’s all robotics and engineering.” From choc-robotics to machines that scoop up radishes and pick apples and potatoes, Britain’s food industry now relies on skills previously unheard of, she says. “The big issue is that people don’t realise the potential of the industry or the jobs that are available. So there’s a shortage of food engineers and food scientists.” Sheffield Hallam is setting up a new course in food engineering, but the minister wants more universities and colleges to follow suit.

Automation of farming has, of course, a long pedigree. Has that in its turn reduced the need for unskilled migrant labour? Truss replies: “There’s a big agricultural engineer in my constituency called Herbert’s that produces potato pickers. Those are jobs that were done by hand and are now done by machine. I think we are seeing that taking place.

“I think the number of people working on farms has declined for years, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more jobs available in food overall. If you think about the whole food chain, whether it’s Sainsbury’s hiring coders or whatever, it’s a different profile of jobs. Farming itself is something where we are going to end up with driverless tractors very soon, I’d imagine. Most of the farm equipment you now need to be able to programme.” So, it’s not like The Wurzels anymore? “Exactly, it’s a dramatic change.”

Her morning visit to the Ilkley brewery, which produces a popular beer named ‘Mary Jane’ after the character in the song On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at, underlined the changes. “They sell in the US, all over the place. But the brewer in charge of the process is a chemistry graduate, and she said to me ‘I need that chemistry degree to have the knowledge to create these special types of beer’. So it’s not just the robotics in a Nestle factory or a big cheese production plant, it’s also those craft industries that we are seeing a huge revival of that also need those scientific skills.”

It’s not just food and farming that are driving the hi-tech, high-skilled jobs in rural areas either. Truss says the rollout of broadband, as well as better road links, has helped attract more tech startups and home-based businesses. Combined with moving food manufacturing closer to source, the jobs boom led the ONS to forecast recently that half a million people will move from urban areas to the countryside in the next decade. That reversal of the historic trend is a tribute to British innovation, Truss says.

“It’s about the jobs themselves being in the countryside. What we’ve seen is a lot of commuting, because people want to live in the countryside but the jobs are in urban areas so they’ve had to commute. Broadband means people find it much easier to work from home, there’s higher rates of business startups than in urban areas, certainly outside London. That trend is different in Britain than it is in other European countries. One of the reasons is that we’ve got better e-commerce, we’ve got better broadband in this country – on a variety of measures – than in other countries. So we’re seeing people being able to work where they live, and that does reduce things like congestion and so on. So I think there are positive effects.”

“This department’s remit is adapting to the challenge of climate change” 

As for the housing pressures that population rise produces, Truss says that while some areas will want more homes and others won’t, the key to government policy is giving local areas more powers to decide for themselves. She is not a fan of the Lib Dem plans to impose levies on second home owners, preferring a more organic solution. “What I want to see is thriving communities and thriving villages and towns where we’ve got local schools, post offices, pubs – making sure the last pub in the village is part of a community right to buy. If there aren’t local jobs available, then you are more likely to get dormitories or other situations like that… I prefer to see it as a pull factor, if you like, of having good jobs so villages and towns can thrive.”

One area of British farming overlooked by the boom is the dairy industry, which has suffered from plummeting prices in recent months. Farmers were dealt a fresh blow earlier this week when Arla – the UK’s largest dairy – announced plans to further cut the price it pays them for milk, following on from a similar move by rival First Milk last week. Truss says the price is forecast to rise over the next year, but insists the Government is working with the NFU and producers organisations to do all it can to help manage price volatility.

Two farmers’ organisations, the TFA and FFA, have called for the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s powers to be extended to demand price transparency and ensure supermarket giants are prevented from passing cost savings down the supply chain to bolster their profits at the cost of producers. On Monday the GCA, Christine Tacon, responded to the calls, urging farmers to come forward with specific cases of breaches of the code. So is there a case for increasing the GCA’s powers? “She’s been very clear she wants to see people come forward with specific cases, so let’s see what happens with that,” Truss replies.

But despite these problems, she continues, the long-term future of the industry is “ultimately very positive”, with exports up 60% since 2009 and a rapidly expanding market for milk and dairy products in Asian powerhouses like China. “There is a growing middle class in those countries. The opportunities are huge,” she says. “So I’m keen to work with the industry to do all we can to make sure the industry stays resilient, because we don’t want to lose that, only in a year’s time for there to be huge demand for dairy products, which we’re absolutely expecting.”

Truss’s enthusiasm for science and tech also extends to the vexed topic of climate change. Owen Paterson famously chose not to be briefed on the subject by Defra’s chief scientist, Prof Ian Boyd. So, has she had a briefing? “Yes, and by the [Government’s] chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, as well.” Pretty quickly after she got the job? “Yes.”

“This department’s remit is adapting to the challenge of climate change,” she says. “I fully agree that climate change is happening. I think the evidence is very strong, but this department’s role is making sure we adapt to climate change and that’s taken into account in all our modelling. So the modelling the Environment Agency does takes that into account. The investment we are putting in will reduce the risk of flooding by 5%.”

Truss also does something her predecessor refused to: she endorses David Cameron’s remark that he “suspects” there is a “link” between extreme weather events and climate change. “I agree with the Prime Minister, that’s the safe thing to say, isn’t it?” she smiles. “The responsibility for mitigation of climate change rests with Ed Davey…that doesn’t stop me from getting lots of questions.”

"What people care about is the increased number of jobs, the fact that we are putting the infrastructure in place, that we have a really positive plan for the economy that is winning people over.”

She adds that Defra has invested jointly with other European countries in the Copernicus satellite, “which gives us real-time data on the natural environment”. “That will enable us to do things like flood mapping even better, as well as providing farmers and food growers with information on productivity of their crops, where’s best to put them. So there’s a huge opportunity for Big Data in terms of improving our knowledge of the environment, whether that’s looking at levels of water pollution, looking at the way we use our land and the condition of our soil or flood defences. Things like climate change are fully factored into that.

“I want to see more data used in this department and I want to see the latest data that we have from satellite technology integrated into everything the Government does.”

After last year’s flood damage, is she confident the Government has the resources in place to deal with any repeat this year? “What we know is we’re better protected than we were before going into last winter. All the repairs have been completed and many areas have been upgraded. We have a six-year programme putting in further defences, that’s 1,400 schemes,” she replies. “What that does is that reduces the risk. It’s impossible to eliminate risk. But what it does is it makes sure we’re as well protected as we can be, and that we have all the systems and alerts in place so if something does happen, we have an effective response prepared for that.”

Truss is keen to stress her childhood roots in Leeds as much as her constituency links, her conversation peppered with references to both Yorkshire and Norfolk. And she knows the Conservatives need to fend off Ukip in rural areas as well as take on Labour in urban marginals in the north. As a northerner and a woman, how does she think the party is faring with both key voter groups?

“On both fronts we are making really good progress. The Northern Powerhouse is a very powerful set of policies, and it’s having a really positive impact.” And for all her admiration for Mrs Thatcher, she accepts that the party was deeply unpopular in the north 30 years ago. “I am from Leeds. I remember what it was like growing up there in the 1980s; I think there is a more positive perception of the party. What people care about is the increased number of jobs, the fact that we are putting the infrastructure in place, that we have a really positive plan for the economy that is winning people over.”


Liz Truss


Economy Education
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