10/05/2012 09:44 BST | Updated 09/07/2012 06:12 BST

Buying British Should Begin at Home Mr Prime Minister

Much has already been written about Nick and Dave's Rose Garden Redux at a Tractor factory in Essex on Tuesday. Certainly there was enough material to fuel a thousand Parliamentary sketch columns; from the barely-concealed metaphor of big blue tractors pulling little yellow trailers; to the slightly incongruous sight of the assembled CNH Tractors staff trying not to look bored silly by the Coalition's favourite double-act.

The choice of venue - the last tractor factory in Britain - was also significant; both for the Government's message about industry and manufacturing, but also because it generated a question about the prospects for British farming - a key issue that rarely strays into the Prime Minister's purview.

David Cameron's response was as follows: "If we want a healthy farming industry, what we've got to recognise is that it really depends on us as consumers going into shops and supermarkets wanting to buy quality British products... if you want healthy farming, you want consumers saying British meat is the best, British food is the best, I want to demand the best and I want to go out to buy the best. That would be good for British agriculture."

At the Countryside Alliance we couldn't agree more, which is why last year we decided to find out how much support the public sector gave to the British farming industry.

In some respects this Government has been a good deal better than their predecessors, especially given that they are hamstrung by EU competition laws. In June last year the Food Minister Jim Paice announced the first Government Buying Standards for food and catering services, which ruled that all food procured by Government departments and their agencies, including the armed services and prisons, should be produced to UK or equivalent production standards where this did not increase overall costs.

However when we asked the nation's schools and hospitals what proportion of their overall food budgets they spent on British food the results were very poor. Out of 172 Local Education Authorities (LEAs) that procured food for schools, only 60 (or 35%) knew the country of origin of the food they were serving to school children. Of those that did know, a decent 60% of their budget was spent on British produce. However hospitals fared even worse. Just 37 out of the 262 NHS Trusts in Britain (14%) knew the origins of the food they were serving to patients.

This is big problem because British farmers produce food to some of the highest standards in the world. These higher standards are a result of Government regulations, which have been imposed to make sure British food meets high nutritional, environmental and welfare standards. The high standard associated with British food undoubtedly means better food for the consumer but also means higher costs for British farmers.

Despite the Government imposing these high standards to improve the quality of British food, there is not enough of a concerted effort to ensure taxpayer money is spent on buying high quality British food for public institutions. Each year the public sector spends close to one billion pounds buying food.

When times are tough, too often the public sector turns to foreign suppliers for cheap goods. But if more schools and hospitals looked to local producers to fill their food needs, they would be investing in higher quality meals for pupils and patients, which would improve concentration and recovery, and put taxpayers' money back into the local economy.

The Prime Minister is right: if you care about eating food produced to the highest standards in the World you need to buy British. But it would make a massive difference if two of the biggest procurers of food in the country - schools and hospitals - listened more closely to their boss!