The hour-long session saw some tough questions being fired towards the DEFRA Minister, Michael Gove, but none seemed to phase him. Kerry McCarthy made a good host, ensuring that the questions didn’t all come from the predominantly male audience; and when needed to, she pushed deeper into the more important subjects. Although none of what Gove said was particularly new, he reaffirmed much of the ‘Green Brexit’ rhetoric.
But actions speak far louder than words Mr Gove ...
Gove began with a speech to assert the importance of the ORFC. He stated that the continued growth of the Conference, (with this year’s event being the biggest one yet), was a sign of growing interest and involvement in food production and the natural environment: A platform for the diverse range of opinions that are helping to rethink agriculture.
He argued that the new Agricultural Bill is a framework that will create the tools necessary for fostering an approach to food production that other countries will envy. This will need to overcome the problems of the existing area-based payments and the ‘just get on with it’ approach to subsidies, which have all led to unnecessary environmental damage that has yet to be healed.
The new Bill, instead, takes the Natural Capital approach, by paying “public money for public goods” with the hope of replenishing our countryside by paying farmers to protect features that under the current subsidy regime are, as Gove argues, “permanently ineligible”. This new approach, Gove claims, will turn our countryside into a diverse patchwork of healthy ecosystems, as farmers embrace their role as stewards of the wider environment.
The Environment Secretary warned about the risks of climate change and argued that we need to start taking a longer term approach to food production; stating that our food security relies on having a resilient environment. However, the current food economy is inhibiting this as it does not provide food producers with a genuine fair share of the money, thus pushing them to try to produce more food at a cheaper cost. But cheap food is literally costing us the Earth. So by starting the conversation about food security and the food economy, Gove hopes that this will make the UK a world leader in food production and food security.
Kerry started the Q&A with a question she has asked many times during the DEFRA committee meetings; “How do we ensure that the tools are used in the right way?” Gove’s response was that he did not want to make the new Bill overly prescriptive and dictate to future governments. Instead, he suggested this would be done by getting people to think differently and to “recognise the complex benefits of farmers for food and land management.” He urged that there needs to be cross party and countrywide recognition that ‘public money for public goods’ is money well spent.
As the chair of the APPG on Agroecology and a member of the Select Committee for the new Ag BIll - Kerry has been a central figure in the campaign to get agroecology included in the bill (read my article on this here). She raised a question about the amendment to include agroecology in the Bill, that she tabled and one which will eventually be voted on once the Bill reaches the report stage later this month or into February.
Follow the science
To this, Gove responded with a fairly flat answer. He tried to convince us that the proposed Bill is enough, claiming that it creates the necessary tools to benefit lots of approaches, but that in a bid to not overburden the bill with detail, many things were deliberately excluded. For example, there was a suggestion the Bill should include the Farmland Bird Index but it doesn’t … why not? Gove went on to argue that the Bill is simply the first step, and stressed that it is more urgent to erect the structures first and add the amendments later on.
Michael Gove then went on to proclaim that to find a solution to agriculture’s issues we must “follow the science.” Boldly, (considering the audience), he tried to make a case for the potential of gene editing and how he believes it should not be ruled out; he favours, he says, a diversity of landscape approaches. However, he did argue that there are issues surrounding this, particularly regarding Intellectual Property and the giant monopolies that currently dominate the field.
One member of the audience asked how we can combat cheap and degenerative imports and maintain protections for UK-grown produce. Mr Gove suggested that this is done by changing what happens at the borders; this boils down to the introduction of stronger tariffs and regulations. For instance, the introduction of non-regression clauses which would ensure that the food entering the country meets the same minimum standards as UK growers. But he did admit that farming is always at the bottom of the heap in trade deals, therefore this will be a struggle. However, examples such as the opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) show that at the core of people’s interest is food, as the core arguments were around food standards; especially chlorinated chicken and GMOs. Again, it falls back to the public and what it demands of the Government.
Another question fired from the audience was about how Mr Gove plans to ensure that DEFRA’s new Agriculture Bill won’t repeat the same mistakes of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and funnel money into the wrong hands; with particular concern over Chinese banks buying up land and taking the Government’s money. Gove admitted that the current system has driven up land prices, particularly for agricultural land which has made it difficult for new entrants and given the wealthier land-owners a larger portion of the pie. The new Bill, he says, will reward farmers for what they deliver. The market will reward food production whilst the Government will support the environmental and social goods that they provide. Furthermore, (as queried by Kerry McCarthy), the current 5ha minimum for CAP eligibility will be abolished after the transition period in 2020, allowing small farmers to get the same support as the larger landowners.
A Devon Wildlife Trust officer put forward a question about enforcement and how landowners who have caused damage often receive no penalties. She argued that to ensure that the Environment is truly protected there needs to be actual enforcement of regulations and additional training of Environment Agency officers to carry out this enforcement. Gove agreed that we must ensure that the regulations actually achieve what they are set out to do. He suggested that a variety of inspection regimens are needed; that there must be transparent, honest, focused and effective enforcement so that no one falls below the baseline.
The Secretary for the Environment hinted that the purpose of ‘public money for public goods’ is to raise the baseline standards of UK farms and improve farming universally. But, of course, this needs to come with a commitment to actually enforcing the regulations and not ignoring them when it suits, (e.g. fox hunting).
Whilst Michael Gove has bold hopes, he is realistic and willing to admit that “we won’t have a perfect system” and instead “what we will have is the right thing to get us to that place.” By providing ‘public money for public goods’ the Agricultural Bill will, in time, raise the ecological baseline of UK farms and inspire other countries to adopt a similar approach.
However, to ensure that the Bill will be used to support good environmental management, I believe that it should include specific mentions to the types of farming we want to encourage including agroecology and organic. Gove would argue, instead, that it is essential that a public consensus is established on what agriculture should look like as this will dictate the future of the Bill.
I left the session with more questions than answers. How is he going to achieve all this? Should we leave the future of such a specialist area in the hands of people who do not know the details? If we don’t include the specific approaches in the Bill now, how can we guarantee they will be included later on? And how can we guarantee the Bill won’t be altered in future to move farming in the opposite direction?
The truth is, nobody has all these answers and there is no guarantee that the Bill won’t be changed in the future to achieve the polar opposite of Mr Gove’s ambitions as set out during this session.
For more reading about the ORFC 2019 - read Miles King’s article here.
The campaign to get agroecological farming onto the Agricultural Bill is still live and it is now more urgent than ever to contact your local MP and urge them to attend the vote at the report stage. Read Jyoti Fernandez’s campaign update here. Contact your MP here.
About This Author
Ben Davis is a member of the Lush Buying team and provides support on agroecology and how to improve the supply chain. Despite being so early, the Oxford Real Farming Conference is a highlight of Ben’s year as it inspires and uplifts him - filling the rest of the year with hope.
Photo credit: Berry Hill Barn by bs0u10e0, via Flickr.