The future of the British food industry after Brexit must focus on quality and provenance rather than weakened regulation, environment secretary Michael Gove has said.
“The future for British food is in quality and provenance and traceability and competing at the top of the value chain,” Gove told a packed auditorium at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. “And if we sign trade deals or lower our regulation or welfare standards in a way that means we’re no longer at the top of the value chain, then we undermine the growing strength of the very best of British food production.”
“Trade deals live or die by the basis by which public is prepared to support them,” Gove added. “TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] ran up against opposition both in the UK and the EU – if we strike a deal with the US it may be that some aspects which do cause concern to the citizens here wouldn’t be allowed to get through the House of Commons.”
In an address earlier in the day to the more conventional Oxford Farming Conference just a few hundred metres up the road, Gove had outlined his commitment to a “green Brexit” that would take advantage of our planned exit from the Common Agricultural Policy to move away from “subsidies for inefficiency,” in which farmers are essentially rewarded for owning land, to more agri-environment schemes and “public money for public goods”.
There were promises to reduce bureaucracy – the farmer should be able to fill out his forms in a single day, Gove said – and to join up the inspection regime. Gove also committed to continuing the Basic Payment System to 2022, while promising funds to help with the transition from the current subsidy system to the new approach. He also mentioned gene-editing technology as a topic for exploration, among other technological breakthroughs.
The response to his announcement was largely warm. The National Farmers Union president Meurig Raymond said: “I was pleased to hear the secretary of state talking about the need to invest in technology, skills and rural resilience – all of which he says are public goods.
“Gove also spoke about the importance of delivering benefits for the environment, something that farmers already advocate and perform highly on … without the productive, resilient and profitable farm businesses across the country, we will not have the people to look after the natural environment.”
Patrick Begg, rural enterprise director of the National Trust, said: “Gove’s commitment today is another step in the right direction for the future of our countryside. These changes will help to shape a sustainable future for farming while giving birds, bees and butterflies the environment they need not only to survive, but to thrive.”
But Mary Creagh MP said: “It’s been a year since the Environmental Audit Committee recommended linking farm payments to environmental protections, but today’s announcement means this change will come two years later than planned and apply in England only. We have waited nearly three years for an environment plan, without which key protections will be lost after Brexit. Announcing the subsidy before the strategy is like putting the cart before the horse.”