• Amy Turner

Oxford Farming Conference 2019 - key points from Michael Gove's address

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove delivered his keynote speech at the 2019 Oxford Farming Conference on 3rd January 2019. This speech focused on the opportunities that Brexit will offer to farmers, with the UK leaving the European Union in less than 3 months time. The full transcript can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/oxford-farming-conference-2019-address-by-the-environment-secretary. Or the video of the speech concerning food production can be viewed in this news section.

The three main points covered in Michael Goves' address were food production, the rural economy and the environment.

Food Production

Food production has been a success story for Britain. Food and drink is our biggest manufacturing sector, with our food and drink contributing £113 billion to the economy every year. Because of our farmers - their hard work, enterprise and commitment, we have safe, nutritious, affordable food in abundance in this country.

Henry Dimbleby from DEFRA will lead on the development of a new Food Strategy. He will be visiting farms and food producers and working with people across the industry to ensure the right questions are being asked.

Michael also explained what farmers must be doing in order to ensure food security: "So food security in the future should mean for example, returning soils to robust health, and improving their organic content. It should also mean keeping pollinator numbers healthy and improving animal welfare and husbandry to minimise health problems and disease risk."

The main ambitions of the new Food Strategy are set to place food security on a sounder footing, enable food producers to plan for the future with confidence, provide a proper understanding of the real economics of the food industry, harness the potential of new technology to improve productivity, make that productivity growth genuinely sustainable - and to improve the nation’s health.

The Rural Economy

When outlining the Governments' role in supporting those who live and work in the countryside, Michael stated " We have already pledged to spend the same level on farm support in cash terms after we leave the European Union right up to the end of this Parliament, and secured a seven-year agricultural transition, beyond the 21-month transition period set out in the EU Withdrawal Agreement, to enable farm businesses to plan ahead."

He also highlighted the governments' pledge to invest a further £200m over the next two years providing full fibre broadband in rural areas. In addition, the newly released Agriculture Bill will make provision for payments to improve productivity, to support collaboration and to help rural businesses cope with change.

Regarding Brexit and subsidy payments he stated "leaving the EU also means we can end support for inefficient area-based payments which as we know reward the already wealthy and hold back innovation, and we can move to support genuine productivity enhancement – and also support public goods like clean air or climate change mitigation which stem from the improvement of soil health, the improvement of water quality and or the improvement of pollinator habitats. We can also better support our organic farming, landscape restoration and biodiversity enrichment; as well as improving public access to the countryside."

The Environment

Outside the EU and the CAP farmers can be rewarded for the goods they generate which are not rewarded in the market.

The proposed Environmental Land Management contracts will provide farmers and other land managers with a pipeline of income to supplement the money they make from food production, forestry and other business activities.

ELMs should be seen as an additional crop, with the Government, rather than a commercial player, entering into a contract with farmers to ensure increased provision of environmental services, many of which will also enhance farm productivity. ELM payments are designed not just to complement existing sources of income but also complement existing initiatives many farmers already pursue.

Gove gave an example of this by saying "for example, the adoption of minimum tillage techniques can not only decrease costs and improve productivity but it also reduces run-off and erosion. That is a public good which contributes to improving water quality and for which farmers could be paid."

Farmers could be rewarded for enhancing the natural capital of which they are stewards - protecting ancient woodland, bringing woodland under active management or restoring peat bogs. These all generate public goods by adding to our carbon storage, boosting air quality, tackling global warming, and also improving water quality.

Recognising that farming is a long-term business, Gove stated that these public goods should be paid for through multi-annual contracts. He also acknowledged that there will be wariness among some about how DEFRA propose to administer these contracts because the recent record of delivery with environmental and countryside stewardship payments has been so woeful.

Dame Glenys Stacey was commissioned to look at the whole landscape of farm regulation and inspection. Her report is an analysis of how to make inspection more proportionate, focused and effective. This would mean that outside the EU and the CAP we can have less onerous inspection, simpler regulation and greater confidence in the maintenance of high standards.

Gove ended his speech by saying "there is a world of opportunity for British agriculture if we are prepared to embrace the opportunities that our policy reforms and the wider technological revolution can bring." If you have any queries please do not hesitate to get in touch with us on our contact page.