Surely the most important ‘public good’ UK farmers produce is food. After all, without the essential asset there can be no enjoyment of the by-products of a properly functioning agricultural system, be that a beautiful landscape or access to it.
Listening to Michael Gove at the Oxford conferences, however, some could be led to think food was merely a by-product of bucolic hay meadows and other environmental facets.
Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference dominated the agenda in a way the Defra team could only have dreamed of. The subsequent headlines in the national press hit a touchy-feely sweet spot the Conservatives were aiming for, highlighting the party’s renewed emphasis on the environment and all things green.
Many farmers welcomed his suggestion that direct payments could be around until 2024, while others expressed frustration over his claim the Common Agricultural Policy merely propped-up inefficient businesses. There was no mention of trying to tackle a market which fails to deliver a proper return for agriculture, thus making said payments essential.
There was also the omission of the devolved nations in his speech, an area which could come back to haunt Defra as the Brexit process continues.
As with any speech, proof of the vision will be in future legislative implementation, but there must surely be concern that by focusing so heavily on environmental agenda, the fundamental aim of farming – that of feeding a nation – could be lost within the public discourse.
In the political maelstrom of Westminster, it is understandable why a beleaguered Government would seek to pander to the green lobby at its back, as well as potential voters on the doorstep. Gove’s challenge, however, is he cannot keep both the farming and environmental camps happy all the time. He will often have to choose one over the other.
To ensure Government sides with agriculture, our unions and lobby groups must be ready to articulate their vision for farming in a way which meets his agenda. If not, you can be certain there will be a queue of environmental lobbyists outside Defra eagerly waiting to get their points across.