Posted 5 December 2009
HRH The Princess Royal spoke passionately about the role education can play in securing future global food supplies, during a visit to Harper Adams University College this week.
The Princess was at the Shropshire campus to officially open the new West Midlands Regional Food Academy, following a short debate on food security.
Beginning an unprompted and unexpected speech before the plaque-unveiling, HRH shared an anecdote about children believing fish originate from supermarket shelves.
“This is quite a serious education issue. It’s a worry in itself. But connecting all the pieces, that’s a really big subject, and of course not everybody can see the whole process. How on earth can the customer understand the whole of that process when they don’t see themselves as even a very small part of it?
“There is the expectation that you will get what you want to eat seven days a week, 365 days a year, whether it is in season or not. That’s a tough order, and again something education could address.”
The Princess also gave encouragement to people considering starting a career in the food sector, which is facing a skills shortage. “For those who want to come into food production – food is still something we cannot live without. We spend a lot of time, money and effort on a lot of things we can probably live without. But what we cannot live without is the food cycle. I think we have to remind ourselves that this is a critical part of our existence.”
The Princess Royal also took a few moments to give a warning on food prices - “Those who control food prices are paying the price, because, if you control food prices, you distort markets in a way that completely upends the system.”
Referring to the debate, she said: “There are a number of issues raised by your questions. These are issues which the customer will not understand unless we try a lot harder to get that message across. I’m not sure how we are going to do that.
“It really is rather important that this academy should be available to a wider group of people. I hope you have a lot of interest and that you get lots of people coming here. You will have a responsibility for accumulated knowledge, and for disseminating it more widely, so I wish you well.
“Thank you for doing this. I have very much enjoyed this morning’s discussion. As always you are setting a very fine example.”
The debate had been chaired by Sir Roy McNulty, Chairman of regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, which awarded Harper Adams the contract to develop and run the £2.5 million food academy.
Panellist Dr Steven Walker, Director-General of Camden BRI, put forward four key questions for thought: Do consumers care enough to change their behaviour? Is there an appetite for more regulation in the industry? Will the industry be able to change without shareholder backing? And how can scientific resources be focussed on the most pressing areas?
He said: “It’s not just about creating excellent science; it’s about excellent translation of science and I think this college and this academy are well placed to take a part in that.”
Also on the panel was Dr Alec Kyriadakes, Head of Product Safety at Sainsbury's Supermarkets, who pushed the need to look at the global supply chain, and use the skills and knowledge of the developed world to support the developing world and its emerging markets. “There is no doubt that food security in the next 30 to 40 years and beyond is going to be absolutely dependent on a resilient global food supply chain,” he said.
Justine Fosh, Director of the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing, brought the debate back to the UK, and asked: “How secure is our domestic food and drink industry?
“We are sitting on a demographic time bomb. Over the next 10 years ago we will need to replace about 137,000 jobs in the food manufacturing industry… As a sector we struggle to attract new graduates and people who can replace that exodus of knowledge.”
Ms Fosh added that the WMRFA was a fantastic step towards filling the skills gap. “Places like this will make a real difference to the future,” she concluded.
After the event, Sir Roy said: “I believe the new academy will be an excellent asset for the region, making a real difference to the economy of the West Midlands, as well as drawing national and international attention to the key role that the West Midlands plays in the production and processing of food in the UK.
“The food and drink industry has many challenges ahead - climate change, healthier ingredients and an ageing workforce. Solutions to these issues will come from support for the knowledge sector, and for people to develop the skills to address these challenges.
"The new centre will also help to deliver two key priorities of the West Midlands Economic Strategy: to promote a learning and skilful region and to create conditions for business growth and economic growth, both of which are crucial in helping to increase productivity."
Alison Blackburn, Chairman of the Board of Governors at Harper Adams, said: "This academy was simply an idea in somebody's mind three years ago and yet here we are together today in what will be a very important facility for the Region and the food industry. The WMRFA exists to bring skills and facilities together with the best ideas and best emerging talent in the industry. It will undoubtedly strengthen the supply chain."
WMRFA Director Ralph Early added: "In a world where issues of food security and food supply chain resilience are of increasing concern to governments, businesses and citizens, and where food prices are rising, national strategic thinking about the UK's food supply system will inevitably move towards ways of reinvigorating and increasing national and regional food production capability and capacity.
"Harper Adams is very strongly placed as one of the few institutions in the UK that has the ability to address these issues in informed yet pragmatic ways, including the provision of training and education in relation to food production and processing.
"The creation of the WMRFA will reinforce and develop the University College's role as the UK's leading institution specialising in food from 'farm to fork'."
The WMRFA is situated in an old mill building at the centre of the Harper Adams campus. The mill has been renovated and converted to house a range of food technology facilities, including a product development kitchen, processing hall, cheese room, taste panel room, focus group room, instrumental analysis room, seminar room and a central teaching theatre, which will seat 100 students and allow hands-on demonstrations for training courses, school visits and public events.