Source: Alamy

Villiers said she was ‘honoured’ to take on her new role at Defra

New environment secretary Theresa Villiers faces “abundant challenges” in demonstrating the government is working in the best interests of the food sector, industry leaders have warned.

The former Northern Ireland secretary – who has regularly spoken in favour of a no-deal Brexit – needed to offer “urgent reassurances” to UK farmers on future trade relationships as well as environmental and animal welfare standards, said Soil Association head of food and health policy Rob Percival.

Villiers and new PM Boris Johnson would need to “take decisive action to increase farming resilience and ensure the long-term future for those farming to the UK’s high health and welfare standards”, said Dawn Howard, CEO of the National Office for Animal Health.

“Everyone’s highest priority should be to find a constructive way out of the current Brexit impasse, which is already costing money, jobs and opportunities for the future,” added PTF director general Andrew Kuyk.

His comments were echoed by National Sheep Association CEO Phil Stocker, who bemoaned the ongoing “risk of crashing out of the EU with no deal” which placed the sheep sector in “completely unjustifiable danger”.

The government needed to safeguard Britain’s food producers and the UK’s domestic food supply, said NFU president Minette Batters, as she called on Defra’s sixth secretary of state since 2010 to “follow up on the promise of her predecessor by committing to a high-level commission to avoid British standards being undermined in the pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals”.

Animal welfare

Villiers’ appointment at Defra and her previous track record on animal welfare was encouraging, suggested Compassion in World Farming chief policy advisor Peter Stevenson, who noted her introduction of a private members bill 18 months ago to ban live exports for slaughter and fattening.

She should also benefit from predecessor Michael Gove’s “groundwork for an ambitious environmental and agricultural policy and has set out a vision for the UK to become an environmental superpower”, suggested the Soil Association’s Percival.

Her appointment was also welcomed by campaign group Fishing for Leave, who described Villiers as a “true blue Brexiteer”. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s pledge this week to “liberate the UK’s bio-science sector from anti-genetic modification rules” was hailed by professor Achim Dobermann, CEO of Rothamsted Research.

Villiers will be able to count on the support of former farming minister George Eustice – who was reappointed as a Defra minister of state today – some six months after he stood down in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

“The issues this department deals with are incredibly important and I have championed a number of them, including air quality and animal welfare,” said Villiers.

“In the coming weeks I look forward to meeting key stakeholders in the food, farming, fishing and environmental sectors. By working together we can deliver the government’s historic commitment to leave the environment in a better state than we found it and to seize the opportunities offered by Brexit.”

More: Michael Gove out at Defra but will work to stave off no-deal