It gives me the greatest pleasure to send a message to the Suffolk Agricultural Association's conference on the importance of grassland and livestock in the Eastern Region, not least because I am such an admirer of your President, Caroline Cranbrook. She is without doubt one of the doughtiest fighters for good sense in agriculture and there are many in this country who owe her a very great deal.
In the light of the Curry Commission and the Mid Term Review of the CAP, the subject of this conference could not be more prescient. There is no doubt that the signals from our national and European governments are changing and I happen to believe that agriculture in this country will shortly be undergoing one of the greatest revolutions since the Second World War. The future is not yet entirely certain, but I think we can be fairly confident that the new world will have at its heart sustainable food and farming, and a strong presumption in favour of the environment. To my mind this must mean that extensively-produced livestock is central to any supported farming system – even here in East Anglia, which is predominantly arable. In Suffolk there is less than 30,000 hectares of permanent grassland left out of a total of 246,000 hectares of farmland, and I would suggest that it is important that such a trend is reversed.
I know that for many of you livestock is already integral to your farming systems. After all, how better to fertilize crops naturally than with animal manure? And how better to dispose of the vegetables rejected by the packhouses than by feeding them to pigs, cattle, sheep, turkeys, geese, chickens and ducks? Cattle and sheep, in particular, are essential to farmers who graze environmentally important land, such as the Suffolk River Valleys' Environmentally Sensitive Areas where there are just over 11,000 hectares under management agreement. Indeed, the RSPB is the largest grazier in East Anglia.
But, as English Nature's Grazing Animals Project recognizes, extensive grazing must be economically sustainable – there has to be a market for meat produced from ‘environmental' livestock. The future must lie in locally-branded, added-value products, giving the consumer more choice. I know that among Suffolk's best kept secrets are its well-developed specialist meat production operations and its local and direct marketing, with farmers producing a huge range of specialist meats, particularly ham, bacon and other pork products.
I have heard glowing reports of Ian and Sue Whitehead's Lane Farm Country Foods who have their own cutting plant and make high quality pork products from their own home-produced stock, selling it at farmers' markets and elsewhere. And I am sure that many of you will have heard of Eric Moss's traditional Suffolk Red Poll cattle, which he is producing on ESA marshes. They make particularly fine beef, and because the breed is natural to the area, he is selling it with great success to local hotels. As I understand that Mr Moss is in the process of organic conversion I suspect that the marketability of his beef will only increase.
These are but two examples, but I am sure that many of you here will testify that the rural economy depends on a strong livestock sector. Abattoirs, farm shops, farmers' markets, local butchers, village shops, delicatessens and the enlightened supermarkets who source locally (and there are more and more of them) - all of these depend on local quality meat. But each of us has a duty to educate others, so that people make the connection between the countryside they clearly cherish and the food which appears on their plates. Even those who live in urban areas can develop regional loyalties to parts of the countryside that they visit.
For instance, I happen to believe that the people who love to take holidays in Suffolk should be encouraged, for example, to seek out Suffolk lamb in the supermarkets. Should any of you find it helpful, I launched the other day a Local Sourcing Guide under the auspices of Business in the Community, of which I am President, to help the smaller farmer and producer cope with all the complications of supplying the retailers and food service sector. I am pleased to report that it has been well-received and seems to be making a difference. If anyone would like a copy, just contact Business in the Community in London.
There is no reason why public bodies cannot also be encouraged to buy regionally. Just over a year ago I discovered, thanks to some excellent work by Cardiff University, that, contrary to received wisdom, local sourcing by public bodies is not incompatible with EU rules. Indeed, the practice is already well established in France and Italy. There are four circumstances in which local sourcing might not be contrary to EU rules: when the contract is divided into smaller lots; when specific product and service criteria, such as local specific or seasonal products, are stipulated; where school canteens are established as not-for-profit organizations (which is done regularly in Italy) and where there are ‘occasional' local food days, requiring ‘spot' purchasing rather than contracts. I am sure many of you knew this already, but I wanted to mention it just in case it might help those of you battling for good sense…
Of course, the Suffolk Agricultural Association, despite the fact that it is one of the oldest such associations in the country, already has a well-developed education programme, for which I do congratulate you. And with this conference, the Association is upholding all the best traditions of agricultural societies. They were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to encourage innovation in animal and arable husbandry, and today they can play a similar role as agriculture enters the new revolution of sustainable farming and food. But they have an additional role which those who founded this Society in 1831 would never have dreamed necessary: to help our urbanized society understand the importance of agriculture. If consumers demand and buy locally-sourced and regional produce, they can help to safeguard the very existence of our countryside.
In Britain we are rapidly losing what is left of our local culture. When we finally wake up and find it all gone, it will not be possible to reinvent it – or ‘grow' it in a test tube. As everyone at this conference knows, the countryside is a living, delicate organism that must be nurtured because agri-culture should be exactly that – a subtle blend of a production system with a profoundly important psycho-social component. The stakes could not be higher and I do wish this conference every possible success and look forward to hearing a report on its outcome.
Meanwhile, this comes with my warmest good wishes.