OPINION: Food & Drink – The Heart of North Devon’s Rural Economy

North Devon Foodfest 2018.

North Devon Foodfest 2018. - Credit: Archant

We are now beginning to understand where the major winners and losers are following both the departure from the EU and the devastating experience of Covid-19. 

There can be no doubt that one of the greatest opportunities arising from this, is the potential for developing a long lasting and locally based food and drink industry. 

The disruption of normal imports and exports into Europe, has enforced a change of attitude regarding both the origins of many of our food products and what we do with them after primary production. Covid has given us all a chance to review the local agenda and to understand how important our regional and very local producers are. This provides a powerful chance for us to accelerate this important sector.

Tim Jones, Chairman of North Devon Biosphere Foundation

Tim Jones, Chairman of North Devon Biosphere Foundation - Credit: North Devon Biosphere

It is crucial that the complex issues required to get from ‘field to fork’ is fully understood. This comes at a time when the farming community are getting to grips with the change in Government subsidies, from Basic Farm Payments to Payment for Environmental Services. 

To ensure that Northern Devon is poised to pick up and lead on this theme, work is currently being undertaken in the form of a food mapping exercise. This is already underway and should be producing an interim report early in the New Year. The scope of this report is not limited to general food production but also to how many of our public sectors procure their food – such as schools and hospitals. Too often it is found that central supply networks are relied upon, many from well outside our area. This is the first and probably the most interesting challenge to get on top of, so that local producers can be used as the go-to supplier for local institutions. 

There are some excellent initiatives which, in addition to the mapping exercise, include the British Farming Day where MPs in Westminster can advocate the importance of farming in our local food supply chains and management of our Countryside. The NFU are supporting this and championing the importance of both food production and food security. They have also issued a strategic report, which links this with the export market and the hospitality industry. They also have started the exercise of understanding how to address the challenges of staff shortages. 

The Government are paying attention to this debate.  

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Within Defra, there are a series of excellent projects. The Treasury are also now advancing their plans for the replacement of the European Union Funding Programme, which will be replaced by the Shared Prosperity Fund. This will not just focus on Towns and Cities but has a clear focus on rural and coastal communities. 

We are also awaiting final detail on the ‘Levelling-Up’ White Paper and something which could be even more helpful to the Northern Devon economy, that comes under the heading of a ‘County Deal’. 

A lot of good things are happening. What we need to ensure, however, is that this is not just hot air but a programme which delivers concrete actions. 

Northern Devon has huge potential to deliver on this and support from both producers and consumers should now be brought together to highlight how this can form part of stronger growth for our rural economy.

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