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Farms have changed “dramatically” from the stereotype of the Wurzels and will soon have driverless tractors, the Environment Secretary has said.
Liz Truss said that modern agriculture means “jobs done by hand are now done by machine”, reducing the need for migrant labour.
She said that while the number of jobs on farms will continue to decline, there will be greater demand for coders and IT experts.
She said that the perception that farming and the food industry is about the Wurzels, the folk band, and “hairnets and wellies” is outdated.
She said: “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.”
She described a recent visit to the Aero production line at Nestle’s factory in York, where people do not even touch the chocolate.
She said: “I went to the Aero production line where there’s no human touching of the chocolate, it’s all robotics and engineering.
“My mission is to completely change the perception of food and farming. 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. “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.”
She said she had become “obsessive” about buying British food to the extent that her daughter now polices her shopping basket.
She said: “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.”
She said that British food is now increasingly seen as “posh” rather than French or Italian food. She said: ““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.
“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.”