Michael Gove NFU Conference

Environment secretary Michael Gove has committed to putting British farmers and food production back “at the heart” of all areas of policy making.

Addressing the National Farmers’ Union Conference 2018 in Birmingham today (20 February), Gove promised that farming and food production was now more central to government decision making than it had been for 50 years.

In a largely well-received speech to delegates at the conference, Gove also stated his commitment to avoiding a “race to the bottom” in standards or a shift towards deregulation in a bid to undercut EU and international competition against British food production.

Instead, the government intended to work with the newly created Food and Drink Sector Council to prepare the sector for the changes following Brexit, he said, while investing public money on rewards for farmers producing healthy food in a sustainable manner.

Strengthening the food and drink sector was integral to the government’s plans for the wider economy, he added, with food and drink exports one of the foremost priorities for the Department for International Trade.

The environment secretary also committed to a review of “unwieldly” farm inspections with the aim of lowering costs for farmers and streamlining the process and agencies involved.

“We want to see how inspections can be simplified, in some cases removed, reduced, or improved, in order to reduce the burden on farmers,” said Gove. “And at the same time, providing consumers with guarantees about animal and plant health standards.”

He also reiterated commitments made at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, promising to extend subsidies to farmers beyond the UK’s 2019 exit from the EU. He confirmed the government planned to alter some aspects of the EU’s basic payment scheme as soon as possible after leaving the EU, while claiming aspects of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy were simply “not working” for the UK’s farming and food supply chain.

Gove further outlined the government’s promise to protect UK producers by refusing to sign a trade deal that meant British farmers would be undercut on standards, while expressing support for a frictionless trade deal with the EU.

Outgoing NFU president Meurig Raymond earlier called on ministers to reveal detail of a trade deal with the EU, amid mounting concern from the farming community that the issue of food production and the future of farming remained palpably absent from discussions around Brexit.

Raymond highlighted the issue as a key concern for the NFU, quoting figures from the Freight Transport Association that suggest a two-minute delay for every lorry going through the ports at Dover would cause a 17-mile tailback causing fresh food to rot in trucks.

However, Gove was not able to appease concerns over the lack of clarity surrounding seasonal workers to harvest crops and staff supply, the majority of whom come from the EU. He told the conference that the priority should be to move away from a labour-intensive model of farming towards a capital-intensive model. He admitted a dilemma in that the sector needed to remain profitable in its labour-intensive model to facilitate a crossover.

Shadow farming minister David Drew, who stepped in for shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman after she was taken ill, joined the calls for the government to reveal a trade deal with the EU, urging the government to avoid a hard Brexit “at all costs”.