Defra Secretary Michael Gove is saying all the right things about protecting domestic food production standards, but it is time his promises were enshrined in law, says Kerry McCarthy, Bristol East MP and member of the Efra Select Committee.
Parliament returned from the Christmas recess on January 7, with the Prime Minister still facing the seemingly impossible challenge of getting her Brexit deal through the Commons.
The ‘meaningful vote’ is expected on January 15: meanwhile, concerns about the impact of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit continue to grow, as the exit date looms closer.
Although Westminster was closed for business, a handful of politicians made it to Oxford for the annual Farming Conference and, just down the road, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), including the Defra Secretary, Michael Gove, who made it to both; Shadow International Trade Secretary, Barry Gardiner; Shadow Farming Minister, David Drew; and the Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
I had the pleasure of hosting a session on the main stage at ORFC with Michael Gove on behalf of the All-Party Group on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming.
We pressed the Secretary of State on why – despite his warm words – he would not accept amendments to the Agriculture Bill on support for whole farm systems, such as organic, pasture-fed, agroecology and agroforestry.
Gove was also asked about other central tenets of sustainable farming, such as good soil, and integrated pest management as an alternative to pesticides.
Access to land was another key concern, with the Secretary of State promising an announcement on support for county farms in the next couple of months; he also agreed that longer-term tenancies were a good thing.
The general feeling in the Hall was the Defra Secretary was saying all the right things, but we need to enshrine this in legislation – whether it be through the Agriculture Bill, or through legislation similar to that in France, promoting agroecology and organic farming.
The big issue at the Oxford Farming Conference, as flagged up by NFU President Minette Batters, was the danger of post-Brexit trade deals allowing cheap food imports to flood into Britain, undercutting British farmers and triggering a race to the bottom on standards.
This also came up at the ORFC, with Gove being pressed again on why he would not support amendments to the Agriculture Bill, such as my new clause 1.
There is clearly widespread support for this from across the farming community – no matter whether you are an OFC or an ORFC type – as well as from environmental groups, and, of course, consumers.
Gove expressed the hope that the Agriculture Bill would return to the Commons before the end of January for Report Stage and would then complete its passage through the Lords before exit day.
This may be a forlorn hope given the Prime Minister’s current difficulties.
If she cannot get her deal through the Commons, it is unlikely that the rest of the legislative programme – other than the most innocuous bills – can proceed.
Kerry can be found tweeting at @KerryMP