But, Ladies and Gentleman, now is not the time for us to be gloomy about all these things. This afternoon is a celebration of the best. And I particularly wanted to congratulate all the prize winners and runners-up, and all those who are working so hard to give people the best quality food. And all I can say is keep up the good fight!

Ladies and Gentleman, after that wonderfully cringing introduction, I would like first of all to thank Stephen Fry for taking the trouble to be here today and for giving us all the benefit of his unbelievable wit, which I must say I always enjoy at any time. 

Now I don't know how many of you want to know my "delayed train" story. I have a really classic one. I won't bore you with the details, but I think most of you probably know of the same situation. I thought I would try the train today as the helicopter couldn't fly. I thought I won't drive up the impossible M4 which has got a lot of roadworks, so I'll get a train instead. Of course, I got delayed. I do hope you were all given a drink, in fact I hope a very stiff one. 

And, anyway, I am late and I apologise and I just wanted, particularly, Ladies and Gentleman, to welcome you today because The Radio Four Food Programme has become, as you will all agree I am sure, something of a national institution. And even I have heard it on, what I prefer to call the wireless, even though I do have difficulty sometimes in tuning into 92 or 95.8 FM and picking up a clear signal. But anyway I am delighted to be part of this Award ceremony which is also a celebration of the programme's twentieth anniversary. 

And today I think it is probably true that more and more people care about what they eat and how it is actually produced. Once again they are indulging in the pleasure of good food and are no longer assuming that to be good it must therefore be foreign. And the Food Programme, I think, can take much of the credit for this. None of you here today needs me to tell you that in large part the programme's popularity and influence is due to one very special individual to whom all producers of speciality and fine foods owe a particular debt of gratitude. 

Derek Cooper is famous, not only for one of the most instantly recognisable voices on radio, but for being one of the most courageous campaigners for what I like to call 'real food'. But he is only one half of a dynamic duo! Sheila Dillon, the producer of the programme, makes up this very special partnership. And I just wanted to thank them both on everyone's behalf for all they have done and continue to do. 

Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the reasons I was so keen to present these awards when asked to do so today was because I happen to believe deeply about the quality of food we eat and the way that it is produced. And that is why I started farming organically over fifteen years ago, and incidentally, why I started Duchy Originals ten years ago. So you can imagine how delighted I am to be able to present awards to so many people whom I have come to know in recent years. 

And as far as I am concerned, no-one could deserve an award more than Helen Browning. She has been utterly invaluable to the organic movement setting the highest standards which so many of us strive, rather pathetically, to follow. And she has proved that organic farming can be profitable, thus destroying one of the great shibboleths of the age. 

And, as the very proud Patron of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, I could not be more pleased that Neal's Yard Dairy won the Small Retailer Award. Randolph Hodgson's support for small-scale makers for whom cheese-making is still a real craft has done so much to save and promote native specialist cheeses. And I congratulate them very much indeed. 

And then Henrietta Green has been a tireless campaigner for specialist food for some years. With her book she was one of the first people to bring British speciality foods to the attention of the general public. Her Food Lovers' Fair, a farmers' market in another, much grander guise, has continued to bring good food to a much wider audience and created one of the most popular events of last year. 

Finally, I just want to say a word about the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. I hope it does not smack of a little insider dealing when I tell you that I happen to be Patron of that - I promise that I had nothing to do with the judging. But Jane Sen and her team have done the most remarkable work at the Centre. I have been there on several occasions and I can remember when I first visited it and got into a certain amount of trouble. But it really is a unique place which nurtures both physical and spiritual health and understands the close relationship between the two. Diet is central to the recovery and treatment programme, and I am delighted that Jane Sen spends much of her time teaching other health professionals what she has learned. So, well done Jane and the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. 

So I could not be more pleased than to be celebrating this group of winners who are all in the forefront of the battle to defend traditional methods of production against the soulless, mechanistic and clinical imperatives with which we seem to be increasingly surrounded. 

And on many fronts it is being won. There is growing public interest in, and appreciation for, speciality foods. Increasingly it is taste and the integrity of the ingredients which consumers are demanding. A great deal of this change in attitudes is due to the people who are all here today. 

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, there are threats too. Perhaps the greatest of these at the moment is the situation facing small and medium sized abattoirs and meat plants. The government made a very encouraging announcement last week which has filled many of us with hope that something will be done. And urgent action is most certainly necessary. The costs which are currently being imposed on abattoirs by regulation is driving them out of business - last year alone 18 per cent were forced to shut down and this trend will only continue if the method of charging for inspection does not change. These smaller abattoirs and meat plants are absolutely critical, I believe, to the health of the rural economy which is suffering so greatly at the moment. 

Now I think everyone accepts that the large meat plants are essential to supply the mass retail and catering markets. But the smaller ones are equally important fulfilling different but vital functions. They underpin local food economies, such as Farmers' Markets which I have been trying to encourage, Farm Shops and independent local butchers. 

They are the source of most specialized, quality meat production and that means they are essential to the survival of rare breeds - I happen to be Patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and a few other things as well, and to organic farmers, and I am Patron of The Soil Association. I think this is why they asked me to do this! Emerging regional marketing initiatives, which are one of the lifelines for struggling farmers, depend upon them. And without them, as I am sure you know, the consequences for animal welfare will be severe, with cattle and sheep having to travel hundreds of miles before they are slaughtered. 

The task of solving this problem will eventually rest with the newly created Food Standards Agency. I am sure they do not need me to tell them that many people are watching this decision with the very closest attention. 

Now no-one here, obviously, wants food safety to be compromised. But balance, in my opinion, is everything. It is not possible to regulate for perfection. Excessive regulation I suspect will lead to only one thing. Small and speciality producers will reach 'threat overload', they will find the risk of legal action and the costs of meeting the regulations so great that they will just give up. With no speciality food producers to report on, there won't even be a Food Programme any more, and certainly no more awards like this evening's. 

I am convinced that the right balance can be found - and I know that efforts are being made within the Ministry of Agriculture to do just this. But it could not be more important. This country's great food traditions - and all that goes with them. I don't need to tell you about the jobs that will be saved, people's livelihoods, whole communities, farmer's families, people committing suicide even if they don't know how to face the future, people's sons and daughters not wanting to go on in farming because of the huge worries that now face them. 

So we are talking about how to maintain an entire culture within this country. So it is no simple matter. I think we need to be very aware of what is at stake. If this goes it is not easy to recreate such lost countryside, such lost culture. So it is vital, in my opinion, that it must be protected. Our precious and unique countryside, which is part of this nation's heritage and culture, depends upon it. 

But, Ladies and Gentleman, now is not the time for us to be gloomy about all these things. This afternoon is a celebration of the best. And I particularly wanted to congratulate all the prize winners and runners-up, and all those who are working so hard to give people the best quality food. And all I can say is keep up the good fight!