Speaking at the National Farmers Union conference today (20 February), Gove suggested the interests represented by the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs have moved up the agenda in Whitehall.
“In the past, the concerns of farmers and food producers were given insufficient weight in the design and implementation of UK government policy. DEFRA, and its predecessor department MAFF, were kept unjustifiably low in the Whitehall pecking order.”
According to Gove’s assessment, Defra’s increasing influence is a consequence of the decision for the UK to leave the EU.
The conservative MP, a lead voice in the Leave campaign argued: “The major policy decisions governing farming and food production were taken not at a domestic level but at European levels through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Since UK ministers and civil servants had little room to shape, let alone, reform the CAP’s operation there was, it was argued, little justification for expending energy thinking hard about food policy.”
Reflecting this shift, Gove said Defra is working more closely with other governmental departments - from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Department of Health - to lead policy discussions around varied issues, including business growth and policy on health and nutrition.
FDF sticks to its Brexit guns
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents the interests of UK food makers, strongly backed Remain. Since the referendum result this summer, the FDF has worked to raise the profile of the negative impact Brexit could have on the food industry – from potential labour shortages, to rising ingredients costs. The FDF has also stressed the necessity to maintain access to the EU’s single market, with European consumers accounting for the majority of UK food exports.
Responding to this morning's speech, the FDF conceded that the profile of Defra has increased under Gove.
“In just a few months the Secretary of State has placed food and drink at the heart of Government thinking. Under his leadership, Defra has blossomed – as evidenced by the creation of the Food and Drink Sector Council,” FEF director general Ian Wright said.
Wright noted the need for “long-term, cohesive food and drink policy across Whitehall” at a time of “huge challenge and uncertainty” for the food industry.
In particular, he stressed that Brexit remains a significant threat to the prosperity of the sector. “It is vital that we secure the right Brexit deal for UK food and drink manufacturers - and for the wider £112bn food chain. This means continued barrier-free and tariff-free trade across the island of Ireland and with the EU27.
“There can be no more important priority in the Brexit negotiations than to secure the future of the UK’s food supply with agreement on trade, access to labour and common regulation.”
Growing ‘Brand Britain’
Growing food exports in a post-Brexit world is a central ambition of both the FDF and Gove’s Defra ministry.
According to Wright, this will require appropriate support, particularly for smaller exporters to identify market opportunities overseas.
According to a new study, from Barclays Corporate Banking, international demand is growing for British made food.
Through a survey of 8,000 participants across eight markets, Barclays detected a 36% increase in demand for British food over the past five years. Of all British made products, international consumers listed British-made food as the most in-demand item, with 22% willing to pay a premium and buy British.
The Brand Britain report revealed that the inclusion of a Union Jack on packaging would encourage 47% of respondents to purchase a product – with demand particularly strong among young people. Only 24% of over 55s would be more likely to buy food showing a Union Jack.
“Consumers in China and India are willing to pay the highest premium, as they see British products to be of a superior quality,” Barclays noted.
The bank suggested that an additional £3.45bn could be generated for British businesses who market their provenance better.