Is that it? Margaret Beckett and the DEFRA team's first press conference was a no-nonsense hello and clear off affair. She did make it clear that the new superministry would strive to listen. But few hard facts emerged. Julian Hunt, Helen Gregory and John Wood report The hacks crammed into the eighth floor of Nobel House in Smith Square on Thursday quickly realised they were going to be disappointed by Margaret Beckett and her ministerial colleagues. Almost with her first breath, Beckett made it clear this first public appearance of the team at the new Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs would not be a time for a debate about policy. It was, insisted the former Leader of the House, simply a time for the politicians to introduce themselves. On her right sat the well known figures of Alun Michael ­ back from the political wilderness as rural affairs minister ­ and environment minister Michael Meacher. To her left was parliamentary under secretary Elliot Morley, who will lead the battle against foot and mouth disease, and Lord Whitty who is responsible for food and farming. Each of the ministers would have discrete policy areas, Beckett said, but would be working closely together to ensure there was plenty of "joined up" thinking both within the department and within government. With the introductions over, Beckett and her colleagues gave a broad outline of the direction in which they want to take the "super-ministry". There was very little in the way of hard facts in what they had to say. But the tone of their message should offer some comfort for a food and drink industry worried its views may be ignored amid the hullabaloo that will undoubtedly envelop the DEFRA. In short, Beckett made it clear she was keen to listen to what all the department's "partners and stakeholders" had to say and pledged she would work hard to win their trust and support. "There is a great range of issues. We have drawn up some draft aims and key goals for the department which we will shall be putting out for consultation with the staff and the range of partner organisations and stakeholders with whom we work. "This is the shape of where we think we are making a beginning. But we can learn and develop." The department's key aim is to "enhance the quality of life" through promoting everything from a better environment, a thriving rural economy, a countryside for all to enjoy and "sustainable and diverse farming and food industries that work together to meet the needs of consumers". Top of DEFRA's list of key tasks is its ambition to become the leading voice in government when it comes to the issues of sustainable development, environmental protection, the renewal of rural areas and the future of farming. Other tasks include playing a leading role in the international debate on climate change, working to protect endangered species around the globe, promoting the energy conservation, animal welfare and fox hunting. As well as combining the work of MAFF with key departments from the old Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, and a few from the Home Office, the new department will sponsor non government bodies such as the the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency, the Meat and Livestock Commission and Food from Britain. Clearly, DEFRA is not going to be MAFF by another name. And therein lies the big problem. Despite Beckett's pledge to be "outward facing and inclusive", she said little of comfort for those who still fear the food chain is going to get forgotten by this all encompassing ministry. That's not going to happen, said Larry Whitty, who sees his role as looking after "the totality of the food chain from plough to plate". He said: "Clearly there are a whole range of issues. Our most immediate priority is recovery from the devastation of foot and mouth disease. Beyond that I will be looking after the strategy for the food and farm industry for the medium and long term." The strategy will include everything from reform of the CAP and common fisheries policy through to the relationship between farmers and retailers. And in an exclusive interview with this magazine (see p4), Whitty pledged the department would work with the industry to promote a "competitive and integrated food supply chain responsive to the needs of consumers". However, some critical questions remain unanswered. When, for example, can we expect the food and farming commission promised by Labour? Beckett said only: "This is a very important proposal. It's something we will take very seriously and will look at very carefully." Hmmm. And what about a public inquiry into foot and mouth? "It's no good asking me questions that you asked Nick Brown and never got an answer," Beckett said. Okay, will the government change its policy on vaccination in the light of new outbreaks of foot and mouth disease? "We are maintaining the policies that we have been pursuing that have brought down the number of cases," said Beckett Despite such defensive stroke play from the DEFRA team this week, there are plenty within the industry and without who are willing to give the government's new super-ministry a chance. On the political front, the new ministry received a cautious welcome from Tory spokesman Tim Yeo. But he said: "It is worrying for farmers that agriculture is not mentioned in the department title ­ farmers won't see that as entirely reassuring." However DEFRA was welcomed by the Liberal Democrats. Spokesman Malcolm Bruce said: "The shake-up certainly sends out the right signals and the department should have more clout." The LibDems pushed for the creation of a rural affairs department by the Scottish Parliament. And Bruce's colleague, Ross Finnie, has been widely praised for the way he has made Scotland's rural affairs ministry work. Speaking to The Grocer before the general election, Finnie said the key ingredient was having a close relationship with all government departments. "If you are developing solutions to a rural economy you need to take a holistic view. You don't build an empire. My job is more of a facilitator and to not have ministers thinking in silos." That remains a crucial challenge for Beckett and her colleagues in Whitehall. The other challenge is making sure she lives up to the title of her new department by keeping food at the top of the agenda and not letting it get swamped by other, politically more sexy, issues. {{NEWS }}