East farmers react positively as Gove describes change on the way
- Credit: PA
East Anglian farmers were encouraged but cautious this week as environment secretary Michael Gove spelt out his vision for UK farming post-Brexit in a conference speech.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, January 4, Mr Gove offered an optimistic analysis of the future of the sector as he stressed the need to embrace change and technology in a fast-moving environment.
Among his proposals, all underpinned by a strong emphasis on conservation and protection of wildlife, he suggested the UK should have a single “world-leading” measure of farm and food quality, and a public procurement system which supported UK growers.
But while supporting a transition period where the current farm subsidy system remains in place, he said the government would replace the Basic Payment Scheme with “a system of public money for public goods”.
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East regional director Robert Sheasby pointed out that a lot more detail was needed before the picture for the sector became clear. The government’s 25 year environment plan was expected to be released some time in spring, and the agriculture bill had now been put off until the autumn - the point at which Brexit terms will need to be agreed.
“I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard. Because we have not seen a draft Agriculture Act I’m not surprised it’s short on detail. There are question marks on it that’ll need clarity,” he said.
“What we will welcome is there’s a little bit more certainly than there was when we woke up this morning. There’s a little bit more structure – he’s said payments will continue until 2022 in some form.”
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But he added: “We have got a long way to go until we are in a position of knowledge and confidence.”
To some extent, detail will be difficult until consultations are complete, he acknowledged, but at the moment it was a “loose framework”.
“Whilst we want certainty, it’s paramount we get the right policy,” he added.
While farmers appeared to recognise there was progress, the overall reception to the minister’s speech appeared to be muted.
Essex farmer Tom Bradshaw, chairman of the NFU’s regional combinable crops board, believed farmers would have to adapt to a world with less government subsidy.
But he felt positive about the speech, which he described as “optimistic and uplifting” as well as “very good and very slick”.
“He’s quite clearly a very keen advocate of food and farming and the environment,” he said, adding that Gove had given a “bit more certainty” about the timeline for change.
But while there was a little more detail about the environment farmers would be operating in, there was still “huge wriggle-room”, he acknowledged. He welcomed plans to cut red tape and champion UK farming, but believed that proposals to cap the amount of support individual farmers could receive would be counter-productive.
Country Land and Business Association director of policy Christopher Price said: “We have been clear that significant change is necessary but it is right to take the necessary time to design and implement a policy without causing immediate and dramatic disruption to thousands of farming businesses across the countryside. We are pleased the Secretary of State has listened to our concerns on this issue and extended the period of operation of the existing basic payment scheme to ensure a full and smooth transition.”
He also welcomed a commitment to the Countryside Stewardship scheme to ensure that farmers could enter it with confidence this year and next. However the CLA would “consider the forthcoming consultation on capping of payments closely”.
Suffolk farmer and local food campaigner Lady Caroline Cranbrook described the speech as “thoughtful and reassuring”.
“It will do much to allay some of our fears regarding our farming future post Brexit,” she said.
“Personally, I wish he had gone further and recognised that providing food for the nation is undeniably the most important of all public goods.”
She welcomed Mr Gove’s comments on food labelling and provenance, as well as for value-added quality brands. “There is potential to export more high-value food, the production of which would enhance the rural economy,” she said.
“However, the problem remains that more than half of the food eaten nationally is anonymous ‘food service’ – public sector, catering and fast food. Better labelling regulation here would certainly be helpful, as would re-definition of best value for public procurement of food.”
She also welcomed the focus on research and technology, and said the environment and food security would “benefit hugely” from developing more disease-resistant crops and plant varieties which could provide protein and cooking oil substitutes for soya and for palm oil.