Michael Gove, the new secretary of state at Defra, has set out his vision for food and farming in the UK, following Brexit.
In his first speech since taking up office following the general election last month, Gove said on Friday British farmers must do more to earn subsidies, which must be based on the work they do to protect and enhance the environment, rather than for the amount of land they own.
In a speech at WWF’s Living Planet Centre, Gove described himself as an ‘environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart’. “Unless we take the right environmental action we risk seeing more species die out, with potentially undreamt of consequences in terms of the health and balance of nature,” he said.
He said Brexit create an ‘historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality and so much more’.
“This Government has pledged that when we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022. And I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many more years to come. But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.
“But while continued support is critically important, so is reform. And indeed I have been struck in the conversations I have had with organisations like the NFU, The Farmers Union of Wales and the Countryside Land Alliance that it is farmers themselves who most want the CAP to change. I have particularly appreciated the open, constructive and imaginative engagement shown by the NFU’s passionate and energetic President Meurig Raymond.
“And it’s the farmers he represents who have had to live within the CAP’s bureaucratic constraints. They have seen how it holds back productivity, impedes progressive environmental stewardship and works against their natural instincts. Farmers owe their living and devote their lives to the land. They are engaged, every day, in practical environmental work and they deserve our respect and support for their commitment to the countryside.
“And from all the conversations I have had so far I with farmers, land owners and managers I know that there is a growing appetite for a new system of agricultural support which respects their work and puts environmental protection and enhancement first. Our approach should therefore be, in Byron’s words, to love not man the less but nature more.
“That means support for woodland creation and tree planting as we seek to meet our aim of eleven million more trees. Because trees are not only a source of beauty and wonder, living evidence of our investment for future generations, they are also a carbon sink, a way to manage flood risk and a habitat for precious species.
“And we should also support those land owners and managers who cultivate and protect the range of habitats which will encourage biodiversity. Heathland and bog, meadow and marsh, estuaries and hedgerows alongside so many other landscapes need care and attention if they are to provide homes to the growing diversity of animal and plant life that we should wish to encourage. Now doing this well depends on developing the skills and farming practices of land owners and managers. And understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.”
NFU President Meurig Raymond has responded to Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove’s speech on farming subsidies.
He said: “As the Secretary of State has said, there are very good reasons to provide support for agriculture. We deliver for the wellbeing of the nation, providing a traceable, safe and affordable domestic supply of food, to some of the highest standards in the world and which the public trusts.
“We deliver for the environment – managing and maintaining 70% of the landscape, which remains feasible only as long as farmers run viable businesses.
“And we deliver for our economy, providing jobs and driving growth in rural communities. We provide the raw materials for a domestic food industry that employs 3.8m people and which, as the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, generates £109bn in value for the UK economy.
“This is why a future agricultural policy must be comprehensive in its range, comprising measures for protecting the environment, improving productivity and managing volatility.
“The NFU set out its vision for a new domestic agricultural policy in March, and we share the Secretary of State’s view that we should seek a bold and ambitious policy once we have left the EU. It is important that we see a broad and innovative range of measures to ensure farmers continue to deliver all the benefits – for our wellbeing, for our economy and for our environment – that the country enjoys.
“Such a policy needs to be comprehensive, providing support to farmers not just for environmental work, but also to manage risk and volatility, and to improve productivity and resilience among farming businesses.
“It needs to be properly resourced, maintaining current levels of public investment in UK agriculture so that the industry remains competitive. And it needs to be planned, with a sufficient implementation period to allow farmers to adjust to a new system, ensuring certainty and stability for farm businesses.”
British Veterinary Association President Gudrun Ravetz said: “We welcome the focus on good environmental practice in the Government’s early plans to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP payments, however there must be greater emphasis placed on animal health and welfare as part of a comprehensive policy moving forwards.
“After all, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the success of our agri-food sector is built on the UK’s reputation for high animal welfare standards, and good animal health status.”
Former Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said: “Michael Gove promised to maintain payments for farmers, now he’s breaking that Brexit promise and the chickens are coming home to roost.
“This speech does nothing to address the huge uncertainty farmers face over the long-term viability of their businesses. Gove has glossed over the crucial issue of whether farmers will be hit with tariffs when selling to customers in Europe.
“If high tariffs and lower subsidies put small farmers out of business, it will be the end of the family farm as we know it. The bottom line is that the best way to protect British farmers is to defend our membership of the single market.”