carrots farming

The environment secretary dangled a carrot of change for the countryside and the UK’s food and farming industry, saying the government could and should do more to help after Brexit

Legendary soul star Sam Cooke once sang ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Michael Gove clearly shares that sentiment.

In his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference today, lasting little more than half an hour, Gove said the word ‘change’ a total of 32 times as he spelled out his vision for a post-Brexit food and farming sector. So change is on the cards for the countryside – though what that means precisely remains to be seen.

Gove won praise from delegates for admitting the government could and should “do more to improve the procurement of British food across the public sector”.

Plans for a future farm and food policy built on sustainability, and a commitment to develop a new “gold standard” label for British food after Brexit, also went down well with an audience that often rails against cheaper imports of meat and other food.

But the biggest crowd pleaser by far was the environment secretary’s commitment to extend the transition period that will see farmers paid their Common Agriculture Policy payments (or the equivalent sum from the newly free UK government) and therefore avoid a financial ‘cliff edge’ scenario for a further two years to 2024.

Improved biodiversity

After that, the government would focus its subsidies on farms that moved away from the focus on yield as seen under the CAP and towards improved biodiversity, provision for wildlife and – in a recurring theme for Gove, the reformed eco-warrior – better environmental stewardship.

Securing farm subsidies in the short term has been a key goal for organisations such as the NFU. But despite this commitment and the wider rhetoric of change, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Gove’s pledge, while welcome news for a farming sector lacking in confidence, extends the transition period for the sector to a whole five years after Brexit.

As NFU vice chairman Guy Smith put it when I spoke to him, it’s a move to “buy time”, as the UK seeks to forge new trade deals and export markets with both the EU and third countries.

Gove’s former colleague George Osborne went even further in an editorial for the Evening Standard today, sniping that extending the life of farm subsidies was the antithesis of the Brexiteer mantra of “taking back control”.

And this brings us to that thorny issue of trade deal negotiations.

 Animal welfare standards

While Gove was again adamant that UK food and animal welfare standards would be a red line in negotiations, the fault lines are already clear to see. Ted McKinney, Under Secretary of State at the US Department for Agriculture and another speaker at the conference today, asked pointedly: “Will the UK be the trade partner we want to see? Or will there be roadblocks?”

McKinney was indignant at the suggestion that US food standards were somehow inferior to the UK and Europe, particularly on the topic of chlorinated chicken.

Meanwhile, European Parliament agriculture committee vice chairman Paolo de Castro warned the UK could lose out on access to the EU market if it diverged too far from the EU’s own standards.

So change might well be coming to food & farming, as Gove puts it, but it’s far from clear at this stage whether it’ll be to the UK’s advantage.