Environment Secretary sets out further detail on post-Brexit plans for the UK farming sector, promising stronger voice for Defra in Whitehall
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has reiterated his desire to "occupy the high ground" on green standards both through future reforms to farming subsidies and when agreeing any new trade deals, as he unveiled further details of his post-Brexit plans for UK agriculture today.
In a speech to farmers, Gove again promised to reform the subsidy regime for agriculture to encourage more environmentally friendly practices after the UK leaves the EU. He also vowed to boost investment in research and development, technological innovation and better broadband access across rural areas of the UK.
Moreover, he promised to improve government procurement of food through higher green standards and announced an official review of the animal welfare and food standards inspection regime for UK farms.
However, he stressed the importance of operating a profitable UK farming sector in order to provide high standards of environmental protection and enhancement.
"I appreciate everything farmers do to keep our soils rich, our rivers clean, to provide habitats for wildlife and to help in the fight against climate change and broader environmental degradation," Gove said. "And I want to see farmers better rewarded for these vital public services. But farmers would not be in a position to provide these public goods, indeed we would not have the countryside we all cherish, without successful, productive, profitable farm businesses."
The government will continue to guarantee the same levels of subsidy funding for farming until 2022, he explained, but will seek to progressively transfer money away from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) towards rewarding farmers for providing services for public good, such as green protections, "as soon as we can after leaving the EU".
"I believe the most important public good we should pay for is environmental protection and enhancement," Gove said, promising to publish a consultation paper on the future of UK agricultural policy "very shortly".
He said leaving the EU would for the first time in decades allow policy design free from Brussels influence, and promised to give farmers and consumers more say in Whitehall decision-making, with both a "stronger voice" and more resources for Defra.
In the past, Gove said, the concerns of farmers and good producers were given insufficient weight in the design and implementation of UK policy. "Defra, and its predecessor department MAFF, were kept unjustifiably low in the Whitehall pecking order," he said. "That was a mistake."
He also sought to offer farmers and food and drink producers assurances on trade, stressing that "we will not lower environmental or animal welfare standards as part of any new trade deals". "We should no more lower our standards than the best brands in any market would lower theirs," he added. "Indeed we should aim higher."
The Environment Secretary's comments will again fuel speculation over tensions within government over the future of environmental regulations and standards. While Gove and Brexit Secretary David Davis today sought to reassure business leaders the UK would not seek to slash green standards once Britain moves away from Brussels legislation, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last week hinted strongly that some environmental rules could be reviewed. Some Conservative MPs and think tanks have also called for the UK to curb some farming standards as part of any new trade deal with the US.
But Gove reiterated his desire for "world leading" animal welfare and environmental standards in the UK, and argued the farming sector should maintains access to labour during the Brexit transition period - although he acknowledged that after Brexit UK farming may need to look "further afield" for labour.
The speech follows previous commitments from Gove to deliver a Green Brexit, as well as a raft of animal welfare policies launched by the Labour Party last week - including farming subsidy reform and increased checks on slaughterhouses - in a bid to "end bad environmental practices".
President of the Country Land & Business Association (CLA), Tim Breitmeyer, welcomed the Environment Secretary's speech, but stressed the key would be in the details contained in any new policy regime.
"This latest statement shows how much the government is embracing our vision for a policy based on supporting profitable food production and rewarding farmers for the public benefit they deliver," Breitmeyer said in a statement. "The hard work now begins to decide the details of this policy, to dedicate sufficient funding to realise the vision, and to agree a transition that allows farmers the time and certainty to adapt and evolve their businesses to take advantage of the opportunities this new policy will provide. This must include recognition that support is needed to enable farming businesses to invest in technology that will help increase productivity."
The government is poised to fundamentally change how it manages the natural world and incentivises environmental protection. The big question remains whether Gove can deliver on his Green Brexit promise.
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