I am delighted that we have such a good cross-section of the British farming and food industry present, covering all the key parts of the food chain.
Farming is not just an industry. It is a crucial part of our national way of life, of our countryside, of our people. It delivers a product that is essential to our daily lives. It has shaped and coloured our landscape. It is a vital part of a food chain worth ??55 billion a year, employing more than three million people.
We know there is a deep and painful crisis in parts of the farming industry. To put it bluntly, it has been confronted by three issues all at once: the rise in the ??/Euro rate; the legacy of BSE; and a fall in international commodity prices. But the crisis also reflects underlying structural problems in British farming. These result from a long tradition of subsidy and protection under the Common Agricultural Policy which, driven by decision at European level, determines a large part of our national agricultural policy.
When I spoke to the NFU last month, I did not rule out short-term support provided it was linked to a proper, long-term strategy. But I challenged the industry - the NFU and others - to work with Government to produce this strategy. Farmers are proud people. They hate the idea of being dependent on subsidy. Of all the scores of farmers and their families that I have talked to, in the past few months, none of them disputed the need for farming to change. "Give us a fair system and a vision of the future and we will do the rest ourselves" is a fair summary of what they told me.
What we are doing today is a start. It will not end the painful re-structuring of the industry that has seen so much real hardship. But it will offer solutions to problems; it will set out a vision; and it will answer some of the key concerns.
The long-term vision is based on a farming industry, crucial both to food production and to the preservation of the rural environment. But it is a vision that means change.
First, to engineer a move away from subsidy in agricultural policy, here and in Europe.
Second, to recognise that our high animal health and welfare standards, in the aftermath of BSE, are here to stay and we should market our produce accordingly. All we need do is tell the truth: British produce is the best and safest there is. Sell it and market it on quality.
Third, we should pursue a process of diversification intelligently and realistically. Farmers are there to farm. But with the right changes in planning regulation, they can do other things that give their core businesses some protection against market tremors and changes.
Fourth, we should pursue rigorously modern methods or technology in making the farming business more successful.
Fifth, we should strip out unnecessary cost and regulation that keep our industry back from competing on anything like a level playing field. Not for many decades have Government and the farming and food industry worked so closely at strategic level to define our common vision, the plan to achieve it, and the measures needed to support farmers in the current crisis.
The main fruits of this process are set out in the document you have before you: our Action Plan for Farming. It sets out more that 30 announcements, falling into the following broad categories:
* a detailed list of measures to lift some of the bureaucracy and cost burdens on farming, including a commitment not to implement the IPPC Directive for poultry and pig installations until 2007 and a significant cut in its costs; cutting back burdens of legislation covering nitrates, waste and groundwater; a review of all our BSE protection measures - including the OTMS and our feed controls to ensure that they are not just effective but proportionate too, coupled with a lifting of the OTMS weight limit; and an immediate and rapid efficiency review of the Meat Hygiene Service;
* measures to bring farming closer to the knowledge economy, including a commitment to develop dedicated electronic services for farming; and a commitment to make it easy for farmers to submit all MAFF forms electronically by 2002.
These are just a few highlights. There are many more measures in the document, all driving in the same direction: to increase the profitability of British farming through better marketing, better quality, better cooperation, better use of new knowledge and technology, and lower costs.
I want to highlight two other vital themes of this summit. First, I believe we are achieving a new spirit of cooperation throughout the food chain. Nick Brown, other parts of Government, farmers, retailers and processors - we have all come together and brought our own contributions to the table. I will shortly ask Ben Gill to tell us briefly about the NFU's Contract with society and the new British quality kitemark. And Ross Buckland will tell us about the new drive to agree a new code of practice governing the relationship between purchasers and suppliers. Others of you will, I know, want to underline your commitment to our common cause: championing British farming and British food because it is the best in the world. The Ministers present from the devolved administrations - Christine and Ross - will want to tell us a little about their own plans for achieving our common goals in their own areas.
Secondly, we are prepared to help support a proper, structured plan for the future. There will be support worth more than ??200 million. It is targeted on the dairy and pig sector, hill farmers, lowland beef and sheep producers. Some of it is tied to restructuring, so that we have a stronger industry, much better able to adapt to future needs. Other parts of the support are directed towards better marketing, new technology and training. It will not, I am acutely aware, solve all your problems. But it will answer some of the most urgent concerns put to me.
I want now to hear your contributions, your reactions and your concerns. Perhaps we can begin with Ben Gill.