Speech

A Brighter Future for Farming

Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out the direction of travel for our farming industry at the NFU Farming Conference 2018

Michael Gove image

Thank you for that very kind introduction.

It’s a great pleasure to be here at this - my first - NFU conference.

But also a sadness that it will be your last as President, Meurig.

You have been an outstanding leader of this organisation, a powerful voice for farmers and a highly effective advocate for agriculture, and you have influenced every level of Government.

I have - hugely- valued your candour and wisdom and will miss our regular meetings.

Everyone in this room should know, and I am sure does, how determinedly you have stood up for their interests in all our conversations and you deserve the gratitude of everyone in this room for your exemplary leadership. Thank you for the work you’ve done.

You leave very big boots to fill.

But it is the NFU’s strength - and this country’s good fortune - that you have a talented field stepping up to take on new leadership roles in the union and I wish them all every success

Food at the heart of life

One issue you have continually impressed on me Meurig, and you repeated in your fantastic speech just now, and one principle I wholeheartedly agree with, is that the heart of farming is food production.

Like you I admire farmers as stewards of the countryside - as you put it to me, Meurig, - the very first friends of the earth.

I personally 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. And I want to see farmers better rewarded for these vital public services.

But I know that 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.

More than that, without successful farm businesses and high quality food production we won’t be able in the future to maintain the balance and health of our whole society and economy. Rural communities depend on profitable agricultural businesses to thrive. The landscapes which draw tourists, from the Lake District to Dartmoor, the Northumberland coast to Pembrokeshire, depend on farmers for their maintenance and upkeep. The hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and pubs which do so much to enhance the attractiveness of these areas for all visitors depend, crucially, on high quality local produce and a healthy local food economy to be at their best.

And I believe that if we get policy right for those who produce our food we can ensure sustainable and balanced growth across the United Kingdom, we can ensure the investment is there in the future, not just to make the countryside and the country as a whole flourish, we can enhance our environment, provide rewarding employment for future generations, improve the physical health and well-being of the population and to shape a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Food, at last, at the heart of government thinking

That is why in this job I have been determined to ensure that the voice, influences and concerns of those who produce our food has been amplified as much as possible, and put at the heart of Government thinking in every policy area.

I fear that, in the past, the concerns of farmers and food producers were given insufficient weight in the design and implementation of UK Government policy. And Meurig as you reminded us, some of the comment of previous holders of this office did not give this sufficient attention.

Defra, and its predecessor department MAFF, were kept unjustifiably low in the Whitehall pecking order.

That was a mistake. But it could be, and was, defended by some on the basis that the major policy decisions governing farming and food production were taken not at a domestic level but at European levels through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Since UK ministers and civil servants had little room to shape, let alone, reform the CAP’s operation there was, it was argued, little justification for expending energy thinking hard about food policy.

This failure, and it was a failure, was all the more lamentable because, as everyone here knows, the food and drink industry is Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector. It’s also Britain’s fastest-growing, with our export growth over the last few months having been driven by massive increases in food and drink sales.

That growth has been enabled by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the new opportunities it has given our exporters. And leaving the EU also, of course, requires us to develop new policies overall on food and farming. As a result for the first time in almost half a century, we are free to design policies from first principles that put British farmers, and consumers, first.

The brilliant team of civil servants in Defra have been rising to that challenge and also critically ensuring that the rest of Government rises to that challenge as well.

So we can now have, for the very first time in Government, a strategy that is designed to integrate the concerns of everyone involved in food and drink production - from farm to fork - to develop the right policies for the future. That food strategy is at the heart of the broader Industrial Strategy which you will hear more about from my friend and colleague Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, tomorrow. Indeed strengthening the food and drink sector overall is integral to the broader economic policy direction the Prime Minister has outlined for the whole of Government. Which is why this year the Department for International Trade has its top agenda item improving food and drink exports.

Working with the Business Department we have also established a Food and Drink Sector Council with representatives from primary producers, processors and distributors, the hospitality sector and retail, to identify where more needs to be done to improve prospects for the food and drink sector. Current and past NFU Presidents are among the representatives on the council and working groups, who will look at how to further improve productivity, enhance training, support innovation and open new export markets.

This work is intended to be the precursor to a new Food and Drink Sector Deal to build on existing successes and help to prepare the sector better for the future.

Fresh thinking about food also government has also meant that we have been working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education on policies to improve nutrition, health and well-being, and it has been Defra that has been the driving force for improvement in these areas.

And we have also been working across Government to improve procurement. As we leave the EU, we will have the chance to review how we use the immense buying power of the public purse to, at last, properly support British food producers. Changing how Government procures food can help drive the change we all want to see - we can use public money to reward British farmers and food producers who grow healthy food in a sustainable fashion, we can invest more in local food economies and we can support higher environmental standards overall.

So I hope you can see, the voices of farmers and food producers, their hopes and concerns, expectations and ambitions, and indeed obligations and duties, are now more central to Government thinking than at any time in fifty years. It is crucial that we, together, make the most of this historic opportunity as we leave the EU, this unfrozen moment, so that we can shape policy decisively in the interest of future generations.

The future of food and farming

So what should our, shared, aim be? What do we, ideally, want the future to look like?

Well my own view is that we want to uphold the trinity of values identified by E.F. Schumacher - health, beauty and permanence.

We want a healthy and beautiful countryside, producing food that makes us healthier as individuals, in a society which has a healthier attitude towards the natural world, an attitude that values permanence, where we wish to preserve and enhance natural capital and where we value the traditions and the virtues of rural life.

But, as I explained in my speech to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, the pursuit of all these values takes place against a background of accelerating demographic, scientific, political and economic change, which Meurig explained.

Change is inevitable, whether in or out of the EU. Population growth, technological innovation, environmental pressures and evolving social attitudes require us all to adapt.

But we need policies which can help farmers and food producers develop resilience in the face of this change, help you to adapt to new opportunities and meet the expectations of future generations, while all the time promoting health, celebrating beauty and valuing permanence.

And I believe that outside the EU there are exciting opportunities for us to shape the future in a way which reflects all of our shared priorities. We can design the policies best fitted for our food producers and consumers. And best equipped to ensure our food economy remains sustainable and profitable in the long term.

Because if we’re honest, the Common Agricultural Policy has not worked either for our food economy or for the natural environment. That is why we have outlined a new direction of travel in our 25 Year Environment Plan, published earlier this year, and we will also be publishing a Consultation Paper on the future of agricultural policy in England very shortly.

And I do hope we can see similar ambition in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Because outside the EU the devolved administrations will have more powers than ever before to shape agricultural policies that suit their jurisdictions and they will be free to devise methods of support that suit the farmers and the consumers in their individual nations.

Of course, we are all working together to ensure there will be UK-wide frameworks on areas of common concern like animal and plant health and we don’t want any decisions taken by any constituent part of the UK that will harm our own internal UK market. And of course we want to work together to ensure that we develop world-leading animal welfare and environmental standards. But I believe that we can get the balance right, between UK frameworks, that ensure that we can work collectively together, effectively, and also the maximum level of devolution in order to ensure that policy fits the needs of individual nations of the United Kingdom.

And we also know that leaving the EU also means - critically - reforming the current system of subsidy for farming and food production. As we all know the current system of support doesn’t work for producers or consumers anywhere in the UK. And it doesn’t deliver sustainability for the long term.

As Meurig pointed out, paying people simply, paying landowners simply, according to the size of their landholding drives up the cost of land, ties up capital unproductively and acts as a barrier to entry to new talent that we all want to encourage into farming, it impedes innovation and it’s holding back productivity growth.

Worse than that, the rules associated with current subsidy payments are unwieldy and, all too often, counter-productive. They require farmers to spend long days ensuring conformity with bureaucratic processes which secure scarcely any benefits, environmental or otherwise, and in turn, those processes require a vast and inflexible bureaucracy to police.

And one particular area which is ripe for reform is the current farming inspection regime, which, despite several recent attempts at simplification, remains as unwieldy as ever. Every year, farmers are confronted by a barrage of inspections from different agencies, often duplicating costs in time and money.

So that’s why I’m delighted to announce today we will be conducting a thorough and comprehensive review of the inspection regime, and our aim will be the simplify it. We want to see how inspections can be simplified, in some cases removed, reduced, or improved, in order to reduce the burden on farmers. And also at the same time, providing consumers with guarantees about animal and plant health standards.

This review is not only long-required but also it’s timely as we design future farming policy and maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU. This review will provide answers to essential questions that we need to grapple with to guide our future approach, subject to the outcome of our negotiations with the EU.

This review will be led by Dame Glenys Staceys, a friend of mine who has over twenty years’ experience in driving reform within public sector organisations. And Dame Glenys understands your concerns. She was also, formerly, Chief Executive of Animal Health, the precursor to APHA and she is dedicated to making sure that the inspections systems works for farmers.

More detail about this review, and also about our proposed system of future agricultural support, will be in our consultation paper on future farming policy which will be published very shortly.

The paper will outline, not just for inspections but a number of areas, a clear direction of travel. But this paper is a consultation not a conclusion.

Future support schemes, future inspection schemes, can only work if they reflect the reality of life for farmers and food producers. So what we will outline is a model for discussion and refinement. Yes it will have detail but it’s not an inflexible new order. We will need time, and critically, your input to get any new system of support right.

A transition period to get reform right

And that is why I have said that there will be a transition period for farming to ensure we get the right new system in place in due course. That period needs to be long enough to ensure we can all adjust to make the most of future opportunities.

Now I know, that when we’re thinking about transition one critical aspect is access to labour. And Meurig made the point loud and clear.

Farming currently depends on access to labour from abroad - both seasonal and more permanent. And also, often ignored by people outside this sector.

Much of that labour is often very highly-skilled labour. Whether its stockmen and dairy workers or the official vets in our abattoirs, 90% of whom are from EU27 nations, agriculture needs access to foreign workers.

It’s already the case that the supply of labour from EU27 countries is diminishing as their economies are recovering and growing. So, in the future, we will need to look further afield than just the EU. And think more creatively.

But I also understand that you need to see action quickly. Not least to deal with imminent pressures in the year ahead. The NFU has put forward strong and, to my mind, compelling arguments for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. I understand the impatience of people in this room for an announcement, I fully acknowledge your concerns and we will be saying more shortly.

But also, we need to look beyond the need simply for seasonal labour, and that’s why I’ve been talking to the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee to ensure that when they are review the shape of immigration policy after we’re free of EU constraints, that the need for continued access to skilled labour for people in farming is at the heart of their thinking. We need that if we’re going to keep our farming sector productive and profitable.

Of course, as I said before, in the medium to long term we need, of course, to move away from a relatively labour intensive model of agriculture to a more capital intensive approach. But we can only do that if farming stays profitable. And we can only ensure farming stays profitable with access to the right labour.

And as well as clarity on access to labour, I also want to give the greatest possible clarity on future funding.

At the last election as you heard the Prime Minister reinforced in the video we saw just now, we were the only party to pledge that funding for farming would be protected - in cash terms - for the whole of this Parliament - until 2022.

We will, of course, be leaving the EU formally in March 2019 but the Government hopes we will secure an agreement from the EU to an implementation period to prepare fully for all the opportunities of the future.

And in farming specifically we have already said that we will pay the 2019 BPS scheme on the same basis as we do now. We then anticipate keeping BPS payments during a transition period in England, which should last a number of years beyond that implementation period.

And while we want to provide those guarantees to enable all farmers to prepare for change, we also hope that we can alter some aspects of payment in significant ways as soon as we can after leaving the EU.

At the Oxford Farming Conference I explained that during the transition we propose at the moment to reduce BPS payments for those in receipt of the highest salaries, and redistribute some of that money to provide different forms of support. There are a number of ways in which we can reduce those payments and I am open- minded as to the best way of proceeding and we will consult in the command paper to be published very shortly.

What, and who, we should support

But talking about different methods of support, brings me to the new system that we want to outline and the values behind it.

We propose to progressively, transfer money away from BPS payments as I’ve said towards the payment of public money for the provision of public goods.

We will guarantee all existing agri-environment schemes entered into before we leave the EU but, critically, we will also invite farmers, land owners and land managers to think creatively now, and to help us pilot new ways of investing in environmental enhancement and in other public goods.

We will outline in the consultation paper what we think could be covered by the definition of public goods and how payments could be made. But, again, the consultation paper is a contribution to the conversation, not the final word. We want to listen to farmers, and others, to ensure that our policy proposals can effectively deliver all the outcomes that we wish to see.

I’m on record as saying and I completely want to underline here that I believe the most important public good we should pay for is environmental protection and enhancement. The work farmers do to ensure our soils can sustain growth in the future, that woods are planted to prevent flooding and provide a carbon sink and that hedgerows and other habitats provide a home for wildlife is hugely important. As Meurig has said, it’s at the heart of what farmers are currently doing, and it should be properly paid for.

We already estimate that soil degradation costs the economy of England and Wales £1.2 billion every year. Soil is a building block of life, alongside water and air and we need as a country to invest in its health.

We all have, all of us as citizens, a moral obligation to hand over our environment in a better state than we found it. And no-one appreciates that better than farmers. And if we are to ensure that our environment is enhanced then all of us as citizens, as taxpayers, must invest in it, and it is those who are most intimately involved in caring for our environment, our farmers, who should be supported with public money most energetically in achieving that ambition.

But of course there are other public goods we should also use public money to secure.

I believe that we should invest in research and development to improve productivity and to bring further environmental benefits.

Some of the developments which improve both profitability and the quality of produce spring from farmers themselves who are developing new and more sophisticated approaches towards natural food production. Changing cultivation methods, for example moving towards min and low till agriculture, require fewer expensive inputs and yield healthier food, they deserve to be championed and shared. Across the world farmers are learning from their experience with natural systems and are making changes to everything from animal husbandry techniques to cropping patterns with transformational results.

And we also need to invest in the potential of new technology. I know the NFU has campaigned hard for a multi-species Livestock Information Programme. I hope to make a firm announcement shortly, as you made a compelling case for investment in that technology, and as Meurig pointed out, improving traceability, providing guarantees on the origin of quality food, is something that consumers want, and that farmers deserve. And that’s why I hope to say more, as I say, in a week or so.

Also when it comes to technology, whether its automation and machine learning, data science or gene-editing, improved tracking and traceability of livestock or new plant bio-security measures, there are a plethora of specific innovations which can increase productivity across farming, bring food costs down and also help us to improve animal and human health and ensure we better protect the environment. These are public goods in which we should invest and they can only be fully realised if we invest in a way which individual farmers and land owners, at the moment, are simply not equipped to on their own. Without public investment to support scientific breakthroughs, and then to help disseminate them across agriculture, we won’t secure the improvements that we all want to see.

And making sure these breakthroughs bring the greatest benefits to the greatest number, depends I think on even greater collaboration and cooperation between farm businesses in the future. And I want to incentivise greater collaboration - not least to ensure we can guarantee environmental improvements at a landscape scale and also to help smaller mixed and livestock farmers cope with market volatility.

Public access to the countryside is another public good that we should value. Now I don’t want to encourage everyone to ride or walk roughshod through working areas, walking through fields of wheat, it may well help connect us to the countryside but it’s not always the right thing to do. And the more connected we all are to the countryside, the more we know and appreciate what’s involved in farming and food production, the more understanding I think there will be of the need to value and support what farmers do. That’s why initiatives like Open Farm Sunday, supported by the NFU, and the work of organisations like LEAF is so important and why they need to be supported.

As does the work of organisations like the Prince’s Countryside Fund which support smaller farms, especially those in more challenging areas. I firmly believe that supporting those farmers, often smaller farmers, who help keep rural life, and economies, healthy is a public good.

I am acutely conscious that the changes which are coming to farming leave some sectors more worried than others. And I am particularly aware for example that many smaller farmers, such as dairy farmers in areas like Devon or upland sheep farmers in Cumbria and Northumberland, fear that the future is particularly challenging for them. Margins are tight. Milk and lamb prices are far from generous. The risks to profitability of Bovine TB or other forces beyond the farmers’ control only add to stress. And the prospect of public support diminishing or even disappearing makes many wonder how they can go on. I believe we have to ensure that future methods of agricultural support recognise how critical it is to value the culture in agriculture - Devon and Somerset would not be as they are - with the countryside as beautiful as it is and communities as resilient as they are - without our dairy farmers. Cumbria and Northumberland, Yorkshire’s Dales and Pennine Lancashire would not be as they are - both as breathtakingly beautiful and as resilient - without our upland sheep farmers.

And yes, I am happy to acknowledge that I am romantic about it. You cannot read James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, with its descriptions of life sheep farming in the Lake District, without realising how precious and valuable a link with all our pasts the continuation of farming in communities such as James’ provides. Men and women are hefted in those hills just as much as the sheep they care for. And preserving profitable farm businesses in those communities is just as much a public good as investment in anything that I know.

I also believe investing in higher animal welfare standards and in improved training and education for those in agriculture and food production are clear public goods. We already, as everyone here knows, have a high baseline for animal health standards, which we will continue to enforce. However, we could also support industry-led initiatives to improve these standards, especially in cases where animal welfare remains at the legislative minimum. This could include pilot schemes that offer payments to farmers delivering higher welfare outcomes, or payments to farmers running trial approaches and technologies to improve animal welfare that are not yet industry standard.

Of course there are other public goods that we can all identify and debate how to support. But, as I have said before, while the list may be extensive, public money is not inexhaustible so we must argue for this investment not just with passion but also precision.

Only connect

Which brings me to investment in a public good which I know is of critical interest and vital benefit to everyone engaged in farming, but also to many others across the country.

I’m talking about broadband.

And, while on the subject, 4G mobile coverage.

Connectivity overall.

It is ridiculous that you can get better mobile phone coverage in Kenya than in parts of Kent. It is unjustifiable that in the country that first guaranteed universal mail provision, invented the telephone and television and pioneered the World Wide Web that broadband provision is so patchy and poor in so many areas.

Farming cannot become as productive as it should be, rural economies cannot grow as they should, and new housing cannot be provided in rural areas as so many hope to see and we cannot have an economy that works for everyone unless everyone has access to decent broadband and mobile coverage.

Daily life, especially active economic life, is becoming increasingly difficult for those without access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband. It is the necessary infrastructure of all our lives in these times, as essential as mains electricity or clean drinking water.

And yet rural communities in Britain are denied good access to this contemporary utility today just as the farmers of the Hill Country in Texas were denied electricity in Congressman Lyndon Johnson’s day - until the New Deal transferred power to the people.

If we could provide a universal service obligation for mail in the past - so that everyone in the country knew their post would be collected and delivered on the same basis as every other citizen – and if we can provide a universal guarantee now that every citizen will be given the same access to the healthcare they need when they need it, then why should we persist in discriminating over access to the essential service that is decent broadband?

Progress has been made, we have already raised the availability of super-fast broadband from 65% of premises in 2010 to 95% by the end of 2017, but more needs to be done. We have committed to making high speed broadband available to all by 2020 and mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022. And as you will have seen, this weekend we announced a new initiative to use church spires to boost broadband and mobile connectivity in rural areas. This kind of creative thinking shows how our nation’s beautiful heritage can work hand in hand with twenty-first century innovation. But we still need to go further.

And in indeed face down some of the vested interests. Some say that if individuals choose to live in rural areas, where broadband provision and mobile phone coverage may cost more, that choice should not be “subsidised” by others in urban areas. To which I say, but where do the urban dwellers get their food from, who keeps the countryside beautiful for them, who protects the landscape, keeps our nation’s green lungs breathing, who maintains the health, beauty and balance of nature for future generations? The people in rural areas who are currently being deprived an important service so many take for granted and need it now.

We’re planning to spend north of £60 billion on HS2, 30 times as much as it would cost to provide universal superfast broadband for everyone in the country.

Surely investment in broadband is just as vital, and an urgent part of improving our critical national infrastructure.

Of course inside the EU, rules on state aid have prevented us from investing in broadband in a way that is best for the UK.

Outside the EU, just one fifth of our annual net contribution to the EU could transform our national infrastructure.

The Prime Minister has made clear that the days of the UK making vast annual contributions to the EU will be over. And when we leave the EU we can put that money towards domestic priorities, like making our digital infrastructure work by improving rural broadband and connectivity overall. I will be working closely with my fantastic colleague, Matt Hancock, the new DCMS Secretary of State and I know as a rural MP he shares my passion for sorting this out.

Universal broadband and 4G coverage for all – paid for by the money we no longer have to give to the EU - that is what we mean by taking back control.

And that’s not the limit of my ambition for rural Britain and our farming sector.

I’ve argued before, with Meurig, that we should not seek to compete on the basis of a race to the bottom but by occupying the high ground of strong environmental, welfare and quality standards.

We shouldn’t be afraid to say that we produce the world’s best food - our beef and lamb, cheese and milk, cod and salmon, soft fruit and salad vegetables - are recognised globally as the gold standard in fresh produce. One of the reasons why our exports are growing so fast.

And that’s precisely why we should not and 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. Indeed, together, we should aim higher.

The trend of our times, and it will only accelerate, is to invest in food that is healthier both for ourselves and our planet.

Rather than feeding ourselves the chemically-adulterated, over-sugared, trans-fat rich processed foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and massive additional pressure on the NHS, there is, rightly, a growing demand that we help more and more people adopt a healthier diet.

Adopting a healthier diet can only be good for British farmers, because it means eating more sustainably produced and carefully cultivated, British produce. More fresh British fruit and veg, fresh British milk and farmhouse cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb, sustainably caught fish and shellfish, British peas and beans, pulses and seeds.

The more we can support local food economies where farmers and growers provide fresh produce to local retailers, the more we can ensure supermarkets and others pay fair prices for fresh British produce, the more children in school learn to buy wisely, cook properly and eat healthily and the more government procurement values fresh, healthy, British food, the better for all our health.

That is why I believe the money we spend, as a country, supporting healthy food production is an investment not an expenditure, a way of reducing significant future costs, not an enduring burden on the exchequer. Wholesome food production is an invaluable investment in the health of our nation, from which we all reap the benefits.

A brighter future

As I hope you can tell, I believe farming, British farming, has a bright future, and I want to ensure it has a bright future.

I want to ensure that you have a stronger voice in Government. I want to ensure that you are at the heart of decision-making. I want to ensure that the new resources that Defra enjoys as well as the new structures that we sit at the heart of should deliver a stronger voice for you.

I want to ensure you have access to as much clarity as possible over future labour, and funding arrangements as we leave the EU. And I believe we can develop a labour market policy and a system of funding support that is fairer to all and which enhances productivity.

I want future funding to be allocated in a way which commands enduring public support, which clearly delivers important public goods, which delivers productivity and innovation breakthroughs that individual farmers might not be able to secure on their own, which supports greater collaboration, gives farmers greater bargaining power, delivers environmental benefits at landscape scale, makes soils healthier and rivers cleaner, encourages the development of new habitats for wildlife and above all incentivises healthy food production.

I want to see public investment at last treat rural areas fairly - not least by making the universal service obligation on broadband truly universal - so ensuring farming and food production can be more productive than ever

And I want to harness the increasing interest that the next generation has in the health of our citizens and our planet to ensure we recognise the importance of supporting those who grow and rear the fresh, local produce which is best for us as individuals and for our environment.

Driving reform in all these areas will ensure that British farmers are better supported to do what they do better than any farmers in the world - produce the best quality food in the world to the highest standards in the world - and it is time we started celebrating that for the future. Thank you.

Published 20 February 2018
Last updated 20 February 2018 + show all updates
  1. Checked against delivery
  2. First published.