Michael Gove’s decision to appoint financier and outspoken environmentalist Ben Goldsmith to the Defra board was a controversial one in farming circles. Abi Kay spoke to him to find out whether those in the industry were justified in their concerns.
When the news broke of Ben Goldsmith’s appointment to the Defra board last month, farmers reacted with trepidation because of his strong views on issues such as rewilding and his vocal opposition to what he describes as ‘industrial’ and ‘factory’ farming.
Concerns were also raised about the appropriateness of his appointment given his previous donations to the Conservative Party and Michael Gove’s political campaigns, plus the involvement of one of his business partners in the selection process for the job.
It is understandable, then, that Mr Goldsmith was keen to explain why his professional background and personal interests, as well as his ownership of a farm, made him a suitable candidate for the role.
“I do not call myself a farmer, because I am not farming myself day in, day out, but I live on and own a farm”, he said.
“I supply meat for a box scheme and produce 60 White Park cattle, 40 West Dorset sheep and five Tamworth sows.
“I have been a recipient of rural payments for a decade, and lived in Somerset longer, so I am not totally removed from farming.”
Mr Goldsmith’s day job involves investing in ‘relatively straightforward opportunities’ in energy and resource efficiency, such as solar photovoltaic assets, energy metering and water companies.
On top of this, he holds three non-executive positions – trustee of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, chairman of his family’s philanthropic foundation and now Defra board member.
So how did he get his latest job?
“I was called initially by a member of the Defra team saying my name had come up and would I be interested in being added to a long list of potential candidates for the board of Defra”, he explains.
“Then I went through a series of interviews. I was interviewed by the Secretary of State, I was interviewed by the permanent secretary of Defra, Claire Moriarty, I was interviewed by the lead non-executive, [Sir] Ian Cheshire, and I had to submit various pieces of information about what I have done, what I do and what I would like to do for Defra.”
The involvement of Sir Ian, who has been chief non-executive director for the Government since 2015, raised eyebrows because he also happens to be chairman of Mr Goldsmith’s investment firm.
Mr Goldsmith admitted when he was first approached about the position he was not fully aware of how departmental boards worked and sought advice from Sir Ian.
“I called him for a briefing on what it actually means to be a Government non-executive, and in consultation with him, decided it is something I would be interested in trying out”, he said.
Asked whether he was worried this connection could be seen to have given him an unfair advantage over other potential candidates, he said: “There is nothing I can do about that. I guess I cannot help who I know.”
Other concerns about Mr Goldsmith’s donations to the Conservative Party and Mr Gove’s constituency branch in 2005 were quickly dismissed.
“Nearly all of that is support for either my brother Zac or my local MP in Somerset”, he said.
“And I have supported Gove. I have known Michael Gove on and off as a friend of my brother’s for 15 or so years. I have always admired Michael, so yes, I supported him in his first election campaign.”
The farming community was nervous about Mr Goldsmith’s appointment for other reasons, one of which was a recent article Mr Goldsmith wrote for the Countryside Alliance (CA) in which he claimed farmers ‘repeatedly soaked’ their land with pesticides.
When questioned about this, he continued to stand by those comments.
“The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has incentivised bad behaviour”, he said.
“There is an element of British farming, and they are a minority, but there is an element which is not interested in the future of our natural capital and our ability to farm.”
Though Mr Goldsmith was keen to defend his CA article, he did distance himself from derogatory comments his brother Zac made about the NFU, saying he did not have such ‘strident’ views on the union.
He also admitted using terms such as ‘industrial’ and ‘factory’ farming could mislead ordinary consumers who may believe he was simply referring to larger farms.
Asked if he needed to be more careful about the language he used in future, he said: “Yes. Perhaps industrial is the wrong word. I have not meant scale by industrial, but I guess realistically it does imply that.”
This pledge to use more considered language, however, did nothing to dampen his distaste for farming practices which he deems to be poor.
“American-style pig farming in which very large numbers of animals are crammed into sheds, who never see the light of day, who never breathe fresh air, who never feel the sun on their back, who never get to exhibit their natural behaviour – I would describe this as one of the worst industries on the planet”, he said.
Despite acknowledging these practices were ‘not the norm’ in the UK, he did go on to criticise Red Tractor standards, describing them as ‘pretty low’.
“If you kept your dogs or your cats in the conditions sanctioned by Red Tractor for pigs, you would go to jail”, he said.
“The Red Tractor people almost certainly have good intentions, it is just the standards are way too low.
“Perhaps it is underfunded; perhaps they do not inspect the places they are certifying enough.
“I would say as a minimum for animal rearing, the RSPCA standard should be the baseline.”
The issue of standards is one of the areas where Mr Goldsmith is perhaps most out of step with a large chunk of the agricultural community.
In the main, he seems to share the same aspirations and views as most farmers, pointing out they have been ‘screwed’ by the supermarkets on price for the last twenty years.
“The Government has been weak-kneed on this forever”, he said.
“Getting farmers a fair price for the food they produce absolutely, categorically has got to be part of the answer [to getting a sustainable agricultural industry].”
One other subject where he is likely to be in disagreement with the majority of farmers, though, is rewilding.
His passion for reintroducing species to the UK is evident when he discusses the possibility of creating a number of ‘enhanced nature recovery zones’ in Dartmoor, the New Forest or Kielder Forest.
“We are the only country which does not have places where you can really lose yourself in proper wilderness”, he said.
“There is a desire for this and there is no point resisting it. There could be certain zones where land managers can be supported to move away from food production.”
Asked which species he would like to see reintroduced, he immediately pointed to wildcats, pine martens and beavers, but when pressed acknowledged farmers would need to be able to control beaver populations – by killing them if necessary.
He also made clear he would support the reintroduction of the lynx in North West England or Scotland.
“It is unusual for lynx to kill sheep”, he said.
“The lynx is like a ghost. You would be very lucky to see one in your lifetime.”
Despite Mr Goldsmith’s obvious passion for a lynx reintroduction, he did say he would not want such a project to be ‘imposed’ without the buy-in of the local community.
He also acknowledged species reintroductions were ‘low priority matters’ in comparison to other issues such as future farming policy.
It is when Mr Goldsmith is discussing moving away from the CAP that he becomes most animated, and he says this is an area he is eager to advise Defra on.
He repeatedly references a report by think-tank Bright Blue which sets out proposals to divide the country into 200 catchments with their own ‘marketplaces’ overseen by Defra.
Land managers and farmers would be able to use these marketplaces to sell services to central Government, the Environment Agency, water companies or conservation organisations.
“I think Bright Blue have nailed it”, Mr Goldsmith said.
“They have produced a blueprint which looks sensible and cutting edge. What is exciting is you have got a whole bunch of different organisations bidding for these services, so the absolute amount of money going into farmers’ hands could be bigger than the old agricultural subsidy budget.”
He is quick, however, to point out if the Government decided not to go down this route, he would not have the power as a non-executive board member to change course.
“It is for Ministers to set policy, it is for civil servants to implement policy, and it is for the non-executives to help with the implementation”, he said.
“If we were to disagree with a policy, it is quite difficult for us to do anything about it.”
So how exactly do the non-executives help with the implementation of policy?
“My understanding is I will involve myself in the context of formal groupings around particular topics”, Mr Goldsmith explains.
“There are taskforces within the department who work on particular topics, and non-executives will be assigned to those taskforces to help where they can through ideas, adding voices around the table and scrutiny.”
The topics taskforces are working on include dealing with waste in the countryside, re-thinking rural payments after Brexit, creating protected areas and keeping on top of plant diseases and invasive species.
Each non-executive director will be assigned to a ‘handful’ of these taskforces on the basis of their experience and interests.
But would Mr Goldsmith use his personal connections to Mr Gove to influence Government policy outside of these formal channels?
“I have known him for a long time, but he is a Government Minister, so I am not sure I would do that”, he said.
“It is disappointing to hear Ben Goldsmith’s comments, which are at odds with Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s comments at the Oxford Farming Conference which praised Red Tractor Assurance for being ‘impressive’ and ‘outstanding’.
“Animal welfare is one of the cornerstones of Red Tractor Assurance and one of the key reasons shoppers trust the logo.
"For example, Red Tractor pig farms have been assessed against the AHDB Pork Real Welfare Protocol for the past five years to provide a strong, science-based evidence to demonstrate good husbandry standards to retailers, animal welfare lobby groups, policy makers and consumers.”