Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Secretary Michael Gove succeeded in putting agriculture at the very heart of the Brexit debate, courtesy of his presentation to the 2018 Oxford Farming Conference.
He also said that food production will remain the main driver for the farming industry and that ongoing support will be required for the sector as a whole.
Gove added: ““Of course Brexit will mean change.
“But, critically, what it means most of all is that we can once more decide how we shape change and how we meet the challenges ahead.
“It means we don’t need any longer to follow the path dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP. We can have our own, national, food policy, our own agriculture policy, our own environment policies, our own economic policies, shaped by our own collective interests.
“The CAP was designed, like so many aspects of the EU, for another world, the post-war period when memories of food shortages were hauntingly powerful and the desire to support a particular model of land use was wrapped up with ideas of a stable countryside that seemed reassuringly attractive after the trauma of industrial-scale conflict.”
Gove said that the CAP has evolved, and indeed improved, over time. But it is still a fundamentally flawed design.
“Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes.”
The DEFRA minister confirmed that he wants to drive change in four specific areas.
“I want to ensure we develop a coherent policy on food - integrating the needs of agriculture businesses, other enterprises, consumers, public health and the environment.
“Second, I want to give farmers and land managers time and the tools to adapt to the future, so we avoid a precipitate cliff edge but also prepare properly for the changes which are coming.
“Third, I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.
“And finally, I want to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards all land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for the countryside.”
Gove believes that government must recognise that its interventions need to be targeted, proportionate and limited.
“Subsidies linked to the size of land holding, or headage payments, reward incumbents, restrict new thinking and ultimately hold back innovation and efficiency,” he said.
“Industries which come to rely on importing cheap labour run the risk of failing to invest in the innovation required to become genuinely more productive. Labour-intensive production inevitably lags behind capital-intensive production.
“And having a subsidy system which incentivises farmers to place every acre they can into food production means that public money isn’t always being spent on renewing natural capital assets like forestry and wetlands.”
Responding, Ulster Farmers’ Union president, Barclay Bell, said the DEFRA Secretary’s comments at the Oxford Farming Conference recognise farmers’ role in delivering safe, affordable food and maintaining the countryside.
The UFU president added that he welcomed a pledge from DEFRA to champion high quality UK food at home and abroad. But he warned that this and food security would not be achieved if there was an imbalance in the support equation in favour of the environment and away from food production.
“We need a balanced approach and Mr Gove must recognise the overwhelming importance of food production and food security. Farmers can deliver environmental goods but if funding is not there to support food security, the UK’s reliance on imported food will increase. This would undermine local food production and drive down food and environmental standards,” warned Mr Bell.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union says the reaffirmation from the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove that existing funding levels for agriculture will continue until 2022, is positive news for farmers, the general public and the economy and will also give time to develop the tools necessary to adapt to a changed future.
“The funding farmers receive is not a luxury. Without it most family farms in Northern Ireland would not be viable. By producing food and looking after the countryside, farmers deliver jobs and environmental benefits for society – and the government has given this welcome recognition,” he said.
The UFU says it is up for the challenge of working in partnership with government to develop a post-Brexit agricultural policy.
“As farmers we are committed to producing the high quality food as well as looking after the countryside”, he said.
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann has welcomed Michael Gove’s announcement at the Oxford Farming Conference that direct payments to most UK farmers will be maintained until March 2024. But he has also accused the DEFRA Secretary of insulting farmers for labelling them all as inefficient.
The North Antrim MLA said: “The announcement that direct payments to farmers in England will be maintained to 2024 is welcome. At the time of the referendum the existing level of payments were initially guaranteed until 2020 and this was then extended by a further two years until 2022 as a result of the last general election.
“By setting a final date of 2024 it means that farmers will have guaranteed support at the same level as EU member states for five years after Brexit. However his comments only specifically referred to those in England so it is essential that this commitment is also quickly made for farmers in Northern Ireland. This is something I fear the ongoing absence of a Minister or local Executive may delay however.
“A firm pledge to support local farmers until 2024 would provide a degree of welcome certainty, however there were other comments made in the same speech by the DEFRA Secretary which were deeply disappointing.
“His comment that paying farmers for the amount of land they have is ‘unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes’ was especially galling. In fact it’s grossly offensive as he is effectively labelling all farmers inefficient, when in reality the UK has some of the most efficient farms and farming techniques in the world.
“I have said in the past Michael Gove needed to move away from soundbites and generalisations and after these recent comments it’s clear that he has still some way to go.
“We are little more than a year away from the UK leaving the European Union and major ambiguity remains, especially in relation to trade. Whilst the commitment that trade between the EU and the UK in agricultural goods will remain tariff-free, firm proposals on how this will actually be achieved and maintained are needed.
“If the UK market was to be suddenly flooded with cheaper and lower welfare food imports, UK farmers would not only be greatly damaged but so too would the consumer as the standard of these foods would undoubtedly be far lower.
“This is a crucially important time for the future of UK agriculture. Decisions taken now and over the next 12 months will have a direct impact on the future of entire generations of farming families. Whilst this most recent speech from the DEFRA Secretary showed some limited progress, major gaps in the future of UK agriculture policy remain.”