Gove’s ‘romantic’ farming vision just that. Hopelessly so

by Luke Lythgoe | 20.02.2018

“I am romantic,” said Michael Gove in a speech on farming’s future after Brexit. At least he admits it. The vision he laid out at the National Farmers Union annual conference ignored uncomfortable realities over the future of farming subsidies, access to foreign markets and labour, and his new green initiatives.

Much of the environment secretary’s speech focused on his plans to reallocate farming subsidies – currently paid by the EU based on the amount of land held – to reward environmental initiatives by farmers. He reeled off a lengthy shopping list: protecting soils, planting woodland and maintaining hedgerows; research into automation, data science and gene-editing; improving public access and education; achieving higher standards of animal welfare.

All admirable goals, but can farmers bank on the same level of funding into the future? Gove is correct that the government will be able to decide how the roughly £3 billion the EU pays annually to UK farmers is spent after Brexit, or more likely after the transition period. But rather than being guaranteed by Brussels, these payments will be competing with everything else the government funds – from the NHS to defence to education. With all forms of Brexit projected to hit our economic growth, politicians will have less money to share around. Whatever Gove’s intentions, governments change and with it their spending priorities.

Farmers also need to be able to sell their goods in foreign markets. Gove ignored his government’s plans to wrench us out of the EU’s single market, where 60% of our agri-food exports currently end up. Any free trade deal we strike with the EU will likely make trade harder than it is now.

What about new deals with non-EU countries? UK farmers will struggle to compete with the mega-farms of the US, Australia, New Zealand and South America. At the same conference, the head of the NFU blasted the Brexiter ploy of “scouring the world for low-cost food” – including those infamous chlorine-washed chickens.

Farmers also need workers. Gove admitted that the supply of seasonal labourers from the EU is falling. There are already reports of produce rotting in the field with no one to pick it. He proposed farmers look “further afield”. Quite apart from how the anti-immigration Brexiters will react to labourers arriving from Asia or Africa, sourcing these distant workers will be more expensive as well as a bureaucratic headache for the Home Office.

Finally, Gove’s drive for greener farming practices is less workable outside the EU. If British farmers put money into environmental innovations, they will be at a competitive disadvantage against European farmers with less onerous standards. The whole point of the EU’s single market is to create a level playing field which benefits producers and consumers across the 500-million-strong bloc. It would be better for the UK to continue driving reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy from within the club.

Want more InFacts?

Click here to get the newsletter

Your first name (required)

Your last name (required)

Your email (required)

Choose which newsletters you want to subscribe to (required)
Daily InFacts NewsletterWeekly InFacts NewsletterBoth the daily and the weekly Newsletter

By clicking 'Sign up to InFacts' I consent to InFacts's privacy policy and being contacted by InFacts. You can unsubscribe at any time by emailing [email protected]

Edited by Hugo Dixon