Farmers, manufacturers and the government need to “take action” to reduce the amount of food that we import, Owen Paterson has said.

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The environment secretary hailed the country’s “top-class” fruit and veg sector, and said that buying British would help the environment, improve the economy and the nation’s health, in a speech to a farming conference.

Norfolk chairman of the National Farmers Union Ken Proctor said that the body already did promote British food as it was the “right thing to do”. But he said: “The customer is king. We can’t tell them what to eat and what they should and shouldn’t be eating.”

He said that the farming industry was “producing good wholesome products at prices people could afford”.

“Our industry is very lean, mean and efficient. It has to be. Our industry is not propped up and you have to compete,” he added.

In his speech Mr Paterson said that Britain grew “some of the best food in the world”, yet almost a quarter of the food eaten in the UK was imported, when it could be produced here.

“We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8bn of fruit and veg in 2012. We can’t grow mangoes or pineapples, but we can encourage UK consumers and food businesses to buy Scottish raspberries or Kent apples.”

He said that the public sector should be supporting the UK’s world class farmers.

In the closing speech of the conference tomorrow, Norfolk MP George Freeman will talk about how agriculture will be transformed.

He said this evening: “The pace and scale of globalisation, population growth, technological innovation and social change over the next few decades is transforming agriculture, creating huge challenges and opportunities for the next generation of farming.”

He said food and farming was getting both more global and more local. The need to grow more food with fewer fertilisers and chemicals, in a way that consumers can have trust and confidence in, has never been greater,” he said.

“Tomorrow’s farming will see whole range of innovations such as ‘Nutriceutical’ ‘functional foods’ which prevent disease, SatNav-guided driverless farm machinery, and a growth in organic and local production sourced to individual farms and fields.

He said it would be a new “green revolution” in farming.

“Just as Norfolk was the crucible of the first Agricultural Revolution so, given the Norwich Research Park and the Norfolk Show and Easton College and our world class food and farming sector, Norfolk is once again becoming the home of agricultural innovation.”

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