T here was speculation this week that Hilary Benn could be sacrificed in a cabinet reshuffle this summer.
If the Defra secretary of state had any inkling that his future was uncertain, he wasn't giving anything away during an interview with The Grocer a few weeks ago. Indeed, he was in a buoyant mood as he talked about the critical role played by his department. "It's a great job. I'm lucky," he said.
Even if the speculation does prove groundless, lucky is hardly the word most people would use to describe his last year. Benn has had something of a baptism by fire since taking over the role from David Miliband last June. He has had to contend with the Competition Commission inquiry into the groceries market, the impact of last year's floods, mounting concerns over climate change, the furore over biofuels, outbreaks of bovine TB, foot and mouth, bluetongue and avian flu, and now the fastest rising commodity prices for a generation.
With an increasingly vociferous farming sector warning that it's been driven to its knees by rising commodity prices, there are plenty more challenges to come - challenges that will only be intensified by the funding cuts that have blighted the department and already led to casualties, such as Food from Britain.
Though he is clearly passionate about his job, his somewhat puritanical nature - he is teetotal and a vegetarian - and measured politics have not always endeared him to the industry. A reputation as something of a fence sitter is perhaps why, when pig farmers wanted to draw attention to the effect of rising feed prices on their industry, they decided to appeal directly to the public with 'Stand By Your Ham', their reworked version of the Tammy Wynette classic, rather than discuss their concerns directly with Benn.
Not that Benn thinks this is a necessarily bad thing. Though he acknowledges the plight of pig farmers - "if you're in the pig sector at the moment you are really feeling the pinch"- he believes it is down to the industry, rather than government, to resolve its price problems and that the public will respond more positively to a direct plea for support. "The sector hasn't come to the government and said 'help us'," he points out. "It's gone to consumers to make the point."
Whether Benn's response can be interpreted as him washing the government's hands of responsibility is debatable. However, it does beg the question of whether the legislative framework does enough to protect smaller suppliers and keep the food supply chain going.
Benn is typically noncommittal about the ongoing Competition Commission inquiry. "The Competition Commission has produced its report and is in the phase of consultation and we must let that take its course," he says. "It shows the competition system working, in the form of responding to what's been going on."
Asked whether Defra would implement the proposed code of practice to regulate relations between farmers and processors, Benn again refuses to be drawn. "We are reflecting on that recommendation," he says. "As a principle it makes sense for all of those who have a stake in aspects of the industry to talk to each other regularly because we have a shared interest in getting these things right given the challenges we face and the importance of the sector."
One subject Benn is determined to stand up and be counted on, however, is bovine TB. The disease has presented a major problem to the farming industry for a number of years, with farmers claiming that the disease - which is transmitted by infected badgers - is making their business unprofitable as a result of lost cattle, movement restrictions and the cost of testing.
Some are now warning that if the problem is not addressed now then retail prices will have to rise 30% to compensate.
For years politicians have shied away from calling for a cull of badgers - either through a fear of the animal welfare activists or from genuine uncertainty over whether a cull would fix the problem. But a landmark development took place last week when the Welsh Assembly announced a multimillion pound package of measures aimed at tackling the disease that included, crucially, a targeted cull of badgers in a TB hotspot. Benn now finds himself under pressure to follow.
He promises that a decision will be made soon. "I've said to the NFU that I will make a decision because it's important people know where they stand," he says, but he adds it will be rooted in science rather than emotion.
Biofuels is another thorny issue that Benn has been forced to take a view on. He warns against seeing biofuels as a quick-fix solution to the world's fuel demands.
"In the end the world can't grow all its transport fuel because we might not have the space left to grow the food, so that wouldn't be sensible," he says. "You need an appropriate balance. If you've got biofuels that are worse in terms of their impact on the environment and climate change than the petrol or diesel it is replacing then there's no point." However, he argues, second-generation biofuels offer more scope for balancing the needs of the food chain with the requirements for transport.
Environmental concerns are at the top of Defra's agenda these days. The one area where Defra consistently refuses to pull its punches is on the environment. Some critics argue the department has set unrealistic goals for UK producers and retailers regarding carbon emissions, for instance.
Not so, says Benn, who adds that it is society, not government, that is demanding action from the food and drink industry to address global warming. "It's not that ministers in governments around the world wake up and say 'right, what can we regulate today?'," he argues.
Benn says he has been impressed by the food industry's work on measuring carbon footprints, but there is still much more to be done. His call to arms is aimed as much at consumers as the industry.
"It's an evolution of understanding - we are seeing growing awareness and I applaud it," he says. "We are all learning and coming to terms with what it will mean to move towards a low-carbon economy. And that means nothing is off limits. If we are going to succeed we require the government to act, the business world to act, and we as individuals will have to act."
Benn believes Defra has played a strong role driving the issue of climate change on the global stage. Britain was at the forefront of the Climate Change Bill, a world first, he points out. The Bill will compel the government to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30% by 2020. The Marine Bill, which will establish the creation of a network of marine conservation zones around Britain, is another piece of legislation he is proud of.
He makes no bones of the fact that he believes the country's economic health is inextricably linked with the green agenda. "The future economic development is low carbon economic development," he says. "The British economy has grown by more than a quarter in real terms in the past decade while our greenhouse gas emissions have gone down 7%. This demonstrates what is possible to achieve." And, he says, it is up to the food and drink industry to help achieve that.
This is strong talk from a man renowned for toeing the party line. Whether he gets the opportunity to back his words with action remains to be seen.snapshot
Name: Hilary Benn
Position: Defra Secretary of State and Labour MP for Leeds Central
Education: Attended Holland Park comprehensive school before completing a degree at the University of Sussex
Career to date: Elected to Ealing Borough Council in 1979 at the age of 25, before becoming chair of the Education Committee in 1986. His parliamentary career includes being a special adviser to former education secretary David Blunkett, and in 2003 he was named minister of state for international development
Hobbies: Sport and gardening
Family: Married, with three sons and a daughter