Michael Gove spoke yesterday at the Oxford Farming Conference -the Age of Acceleration. The general consensus from those interested in the environment is that Gove is the best Defra Secretary of State for years. He has a clear understanding of the issues involved and he seems to really get it! You can read his full speech here.
Gove highlighted the priority areas for the forthcoming White Paper on Agriculture and the Environment: driving change in 4 ways
- Develop a coherent food policy
- Give farmers the tools to adapt to the future
- Move away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods
- Ensure we build natural capital thinking into our approach for all land use and management
I’ve picked out a few sections which caught my eye.
Gove – the deep green!
Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth – natural, human and economic – ultimately depends.
Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life – our planet.
Gove on changes to the subsidy system
Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth.
The principal public good we will invest in is of course environmental enhancement.
Gove on tackling the power of the supermarkets and processors
Government can also intervene closer to home where there is market failure. When, for example some powerful players in the food chain use the scale of their market presence to demand low prices from primary producers who are much smaller and dis-aggregated. That is why my colleague George Eustice is looking now at overall fairness in the supply chain.
And indeed I also have a responsibility to ask if all the incentives and Government interventions everywhere in the food chain work towards economic justice and social inclusion.
So that does mean …. asking how we can support those farmers, for example upland sheep farmers, whose profit margins are more likely to be small but whose contribution to rural life and the maintenance of iconic landscapes is immense.
Rural resilience as a public good
Finally there is rural resilience. There are any number of smaller farm and rural businesses which help keep communities coherent and ensure the culture in agriculture is kept healthy. Whether it’s upland farmers in Wales or Cumbria, crofters in Scotland or small livestock farmers in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure support is there for those who keep rural life vital. The work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable here and the kind of enterprises that it supports are, I believe, worthy of public support.
And finally, a message to the NFU?
And there are huge opportunities for those in agriculture to play the leading role in shaping this strategy. Rather than devoting intellectual energy and political capital to campaigning for policy interventions designed to insulate farming from change, agriculture’s leaders can respond to growing public interest in debates about food, animal welfare, the environment, health and economic justice by demonstrating, as so many in this room are doing, how their innovative and dynamic approaches are enhancing the environment, safeguarding animal welfare, producing food of the highest quality, improving public health and contributing to a fairer society.
OK we are going to have to wait until 2022 for some of this to fully appear but it really does seem that change is on the way.
Or does it?
Gove’s leadership at Defra has been immense and shows what an individual in Government can achieve. But what would happen to all of this if there is a Cabinet re-shuffle and the ambitious Gove ends up in say, the Foreign Office?
Would his successor have the same zeal? The previous two Secretaries of State at Defra certainly didn’t.