UK targets ‘gold standard’ for environmental food production after Brexit

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability will be placed at the heart of UK agri-policy after Brexit, Gove suggests ©iStock
Sustainability will be placed at the heart of UK agri-policy after Brexit, Gove suggests ©iStock

Related tags: Food, Agriculture

The UK will be free to develop a production system that delivers the global “gold standard” of food production after Brexit, UK Environment Minister Michael Gove insists.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Gove stressed that animal welfare, quality, safety and environmental concerns would inform the future of the UK’s food and agriculture policy.

“I want to ensure we develop a coherent policy on food - integrating the needs of agriculture businesses, other enterprises, consumers, public health and the environment... I believe it's critical as we think of food production and the role of farming in the future that we develop policy which looks at the food chain as a whole, from farm to fork, and we also recognise the economic, health and environmental forces shaping the future of food,”​ he told his audience at the agricultural summit.

The pro-Brexit campaigner suggested that this approach would enable UK food producers to develop products that sit at the “top”​ of the value chain. While Gove conceded “price will always be a factor”​ informing consumer purchasing decisions, he stressed that other considerations are becoming more important to unlocking value in the food sector.

“If we look at some of the fastest growing food brands, providing the most value-added for both consumers and producers, then it’s being able to provide certainty over origins, traceability of ingredients, integrity in production and a distinctiveness in taste which matter more and more. Whether its Belvoir soft drinks or Botanist Gin, organic milk or West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, grass-fed beef from Devon or Welsh lamb, Cumberland sausages or Melton Mowbray pork pies, Tyrell’s crisps or Forman’s London cured smoked salmon, the future profits in food production lie in distinctive quality produce,”​ Gove argued.

Setting a new global standard

By supporting the development of more environmentally-friendly food and farming processes, Gove insisted that the UK will be able to raise the global benchmark for high-quality food production.

The DEFRA minister revealed that his department is currently mulling the development of a new food labelling standard to communicate these broader values.

“I want us, outside the EU, to develop new approaches to food labelling. Not just badging food properly as British, but also creating a new gold-standard metric for food and farming quality.

“There are already a number of ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal ​welfate or environmental standards, from the Red Tractor scheme to the Leaf mark. But while they are all impressive and outstanding, there is no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against a sensible basket of indicators, taking into account such things as soil health, control of pollution, contribution to water quality as well as animal welfare.”

Gove said DEFRA has been “in discussions”​ with farmers and food producers about how such as scheme could be advanced.

“Outside the EU, we could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world leading.”

No ‘watering down’ of standards to secure trade

With this in mind, Gove again played down concerns that UK trade negotiators could make concessions over food quality, animal welfare or environmental regulations in order to win free trade agreements with less regulated markets, such as the US.

“It would be foolish for us to lower animal welfare or environmental standards in any trade deal and, in doing so, undercut our own reputation for quality. We will succeed in the global marketplace because we are competing at the top of the value chain not trying to win a race to the bottom,”​ he insisted.

Gove’s speech followed today’s (4 January) warning from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology that Brexit could represent the “biggest peacetime threat”​ to UK food security.

The group’s chairwoman, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, said: “There are serious concerns that if negotiators don’t value farmers enough and build poorly managed trade deals that reflect this - particularly a US-UK deal - it could trigger a race to the bottom in terms of standards and ability of our own farmers to compete.”

However, like Gove, the group also stressed that Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity to set the bar for food production quality.

Co-chair, Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy, urged: “The adoption of agroecological principles, policies ​and practices across all relevant departments of government will be key to building a 21st-century food and farming policy that is economically rich and robust while operating sustainably in the truest sense of the word.”

Moving on from CAP

Speaking in Oxford this morning, Gove took the opportunity to outline some perceived of the shortcomings European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Characterising CAP as a blunt instrument – “a fundamentally flawed design”​ - Gove insisted that outside the EU the UK will develop an agricultural policy that takes a holistic approach to environmental conservation and recognises the importance of the country’s “natural capital”.

“[CAP] rewards farmers for sticking to methods of production that are resource-inefficient and also incentivises an approach to environmental stewardship which is all about mathematically precise field margins and not truly ecologically healthy landscapes.”

While farmer payments will be ring-fenced for the period of the current parliament, Gove said that DEFRA will ultimately move to sever the link between farmer payments and the amount of land under cultivation. He also suggested that the government will cut the number of farm inspections, which will become “more genuinely risk-based”​.

“I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.”

Public goods will include concepts like "natural capital"​ and environmental land stewardship.

The UK's new regime will also address food waste by replacing requirements for the disposal of excess production. Potentially, Gove suggested, excess production could be diverted to charities that address food poverty. 

Future trade with the EU

Highlighting the importance of the food and drink sector to the UK’s economic wellbeing, Gove said he was “confident”​ that the country will be able to secure access to European markets in upcoming trade negotiations.

The EU is the UK food sector's single largest export market and food makers have insisted that future prosperity will hinge on the free flow of goods between the UK and Europe. 

“Food and drink is the UK's biggest manufacturing sector and one of its fastest growing, with an increase last year of 8% in exports to the EU and 10% in exports outside the US in the first three quarters of 2017… We are confident of building a new economic partnership with the EU that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods across each other’s borders,"​ Gove suggested. 

In order to deliver this, Gove argued that UK negotiators will leverage the country’s deficit in agricultural and horticultural produce. “Irish beef farmers, French butter and cheese producers, Dutch market gardeners and Spanish salad growers all have an interest just as, if not more acute, than Welsh sheep farmers or Ulster dairy farmers, in securing continued tariff-free access between the UK and the EU."

Gove said that while the UK will formally exit the EU in March 2019, the Government expects to secure a two-year transition period lasting to 2021.

"I want to give farmers and land managers time and the tools to adapt to the future, so we avoid a precipitate cliff edge but also prepare properly for the changes which are coming.”

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