Analysts are warning that the threat of Defra losing its environmental remit could be bad news for food production. Michael Barker reports

As the food industry digests the reshuffle at key government departments - Caroline Spelman named boss of Defra and Chris Huhne (pictured) landing the top job at the DECC - more change looms on the horizon.

Pre-election pledges on everything from the budget deficit to badgers await action. And the industry looks on with bated breath.

Commentators suggest a struggle between Defra and DECC for the green remit could be imminent. Whispers in Westminster have it that Huhne, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, wants to carve out a name for himself and bring environmental responsibilities under the umbrella of a new green ministry. But what would such a move mean for the food industry?

The prospect rings alarm bells for some. If the rumours that the Lib Dems will push for the removal of the environmental remit from Defra are true, issues such as waste, packaging and emissions could become detached from food production. This could harm the industry, warn commentators.

"Defra understands the balance between the need to be environmentally friendly and the demands on the food industry," says one political analyst. "If it's split off to a different department you could end up with a green department that is a bit more rabid that may present a challenge to the industry."

According to the National Beef Association, the fear remains that lobbyists will seek to persuade policy-makers that livestock farming contributes far more to climate change than previously thought, and downplay the role the sector plays in achieving food security.

"You can't have climate change or environmental issues in isolation from food production it would leave it open to abuse from people with pre-conceived ideas," says NBA director Kim-Marie Haywood. "I'd be concerned the DECC may not be so au fait with the industry and might take the agenda in a different direction."

A shift in remits could mean a greater emphasis in Defra on enhancing the productive capability of British farmers, suggests Jim Begg, director general of Dairy UK.

"This change of emphasis will not see sustainability or environment fall from the agenda," he says. "Both coalition parties recognise the importance of these issues. We would expect to see closer co-ordination between the FSA and Defra and a clearer recognition of each other's responsibilities."

But if wider change is in the offing, Spelman is keeping it close to her chest, according to Thomas Lingard, deputy director of the Green Alliance. He said: "We've met with Caroline Spelman and there was no indication of any planned changes."

Many see the appointment of Spelman a veteran with 15 years' experience in farming and a former deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers as a sign that a more farming-friendly future is dawning.

"The last government was leaning too much towards the environment," says David Cotton, chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. "There's a clean sheet now and farming groups will be lobbying to make sure issues such as TB and farmer profitability are top of the agenda."

This will provide succour for critics of former Defra secretary Hilary Benn, whose pursuit of tougher environmental controls on farming and indecision over key issues such as bovine TB prompted disquiet in the sector. Before the election David Cameron voiced a desire to implement a targeted badger cull to keep the disease in check. Controversy may soon follow for Spelman.

Defra: key dates
June 2001
Defra is created by the merger of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the environmental and countryside business areas of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)

July 2007
Hilary Benn appointed as Defra secretary, replacing David Miliband

October 2008
Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is formed, to take over responsibility for climate change

May 2010
Caroline Spelman replaces Benn at Defra. Jim Paice takes up the role of minister for agriculture and food