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A Bold Vision For Farming - Michael Gove at Oxford

A Bold Vision For Farming

The Secretary of State for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs has had a headline start to the year at the Oxford farming conferences. Politically, Michael Gove has an important role in lifting the environmental profile of his party, appealing to greens and the youth vote. Gove has a lot to do – the food and agricultural sector has been identified as the most immediately challenged by Brexit.

He gave a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, before heading over to the Oxford Real Farming Conference for a Q&A with Zac Goldsmith MP – taking questions from the audience too. Between these two conferences, we saw Gove balancing the complex challenges facing agriculture, sustainability and a post-Brexit plan for the UK food sector.

We have explored some of the key points - and contradictions - coming from this landmark week in UK food and farming policy.  You can also read Helen Browning’s response to Gove’s speech here. Some of the concrete announcements from Secretary of State were:

Maintaining basic payments until 2024

“What I propose is that we will continue to provide people with BPS payments for a further UK agriculture specific transition period beyond 2022, and I envisage that should be around 5 years from the end of the existing BPS in 2019.”

Securing this payment until 2024 will calm concerns of farmers in the UK and gives everyone a clear timescale to adapt and prepare for a new farm payment system. It comes with a plan to gradually reduce the upper limit that a landowner can receive in a transition period from 2019 to 2024.  It was noted that capping area-based payments is already possible under existing EU rules; Northern Ireland has implemented a cap on basic payments. Similar proposals are also being considered at EU level too, for the next phase of Common Agriculture Policy reform, in order to better support small and medium sized farms.

Public goods payments to replace area-based payments

Gove confirmed there would be a “new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.” This marks the end of payments to farmers for simply owning land, moving to a system that supports the provision of benefits to society that the market doesn’t provide for – such as improving animal welfare, maintaining wildlife habitat or improving water quality. Our policy proposals last year called for public money for public goods to be a key principle for future farming policy, and we welcome this news. 

One suggestion associated with payments to achieve multiple gains was doing more to support farmers to convert to organic farming. Gove said: “The organic movement has done amazing work, which has influenced farming overall […] I think many more farmers would like to go down that road than are currently doing so – part of the responsibility I have is making sure that public money can help them through the transition period before they become fully organic.”

Simplification of farm payment system

Along with committing to reduce the total number of inspections that farmers receive, Defra will simplify the farm payment system for Countryside Stewardship applications so that ‘any farmer can complete an application inside a working day’.

The simplification of the farm payment system was a major focus of the 2013 reform of the CAP, a process, which has proven to be more complex, slow and ineffective in England through the widely criticised Rural Payments Agency. Will we see a similar outcome from this reform – or can simplification become a reality?

A coherent policy on food

Many commentators have despaired at the failure of government departments to work together in the past on food and farming policy;  so the announcement that Defra are committed to a food policy to ‘integrate the needs of agriculture businesses, other enterprises, consumers, public health and the environment’ is very welcome. Gove stated that he has “a responsibility to ask if public money supporting food production is also contributing to improved public health”.  

Public procurement initiatives such as Food for Life Served Here are toolkits that the government could pick up and support to achieve quick gains – certainly within schools, hospitals, care homes, and other public bodies.  Zac Goldsmith MP explained that every single primary school in his constituency serves Soil Association Food for Life gold standard food - and suggested that the Government should adopt this as the national standard for all public procurement.

The productivity problem

Another major part of new farming policy will focus on productivity. Importantly, Gove hinted that the Government will move away from narrow measurements of productivity and consider all inputs and outputs, including environmental harm or enhancement. Speaking about the vital importance of soil health, he said:

Sustainably managed land is far more productive than land that is stressed and stripped of its nutrients. But moving to more sustainable and, ultimately, productive farming methods can involve transitional costs and pressures. So we plan to provide new support for those who choose to farm in the most sustainable fashion.”

Later, he added: “a simple drive to maximise yield from the land in any given year or cycle is a foolish enterprise; it ends up with us sawing off the branch on which we sit, undermining the natural capital of the earth on which we all rely”.

What is missing?

Despite such bold and wide ranging ambitions, there remain questions that loom over Gove’s announcements for reform in UK agriculture. Much of the detail has yet to be revealed. The role of devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in shaping future agri-food policies is up for question. Measures to address the impacts of climate change upon and arising from the food and agriculture sector are conspicuous by their absence.  

There is also a concern that, if the Government attempts to please everyone, the strong sentiments towards food quality, environmental protection, animal welfare, innovation, and redistribution of public money could be watered down when push comes to shove with trade agreements, or when the Treasury counts the pennies in the pot for a hugely stretched health service.

Despite this, Gove is pushing the brief of the department harder and more imaginatively than many of his predecessors – you can read his speech from the Oxford Farming Conference here, or watch the Q&A with Zac Goldsmith MP from Oxford Real Farming Conference here.

This year’s Oxford farming conferences were loud and influential – but time will tell whether they mark a revolution, or just a reshuffle.

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