Catherine Broomfield writes with her thoughts on our Future of UK Farming conference for the Western Morning News.

Old habits are hard to break, so I was unprepared for my reaction to Michael Gove as I sat in the audience of the Sustainable Food Trust’s conference last Friday, listening to the Secretary of State give the keynote address. He was impressive, convincing, informed and empathetic. A warm and fuzzy feeling descended over the conference hall of around 300.

Unlike most farming conferences, where the first 15 rows are filled with DEFRA agency policy wonks, the vast majority of this audience were actual, real farmers who, over the past 10 years or more, have learnt to expect their Secretary of State to be at best ineffective, and at worst hostile, to farmers and their primary pursuit of feeding the nation.

For as long as I can remember, DEFRA Ministers have been the last one standing in the playground as the Netball Captain picks her team, but in a strange twist of fate, Gove’s post-Brexit mendacity in back-stabbing Boris, left him wrong footed and weak. This gave the PM license to pay him the backhanded compliment of the DEFRA brief which, whilst not quite the Northern Ireland Office, is not much better in terms of career moves. But Gove has defied all expectations, certainly of the farming community and quite possibly of the PM herself. If what you want from a Secretary of State is energy, grip and vision, then Gove delivers. And for once UK Agriculture is represented at the Cabinet table with a big hitter who propels the influence and importance of DEFRA right to the top of the government’s agenda.

I went to the conference expecting no more than a snake oil salesman, and found myself struggling to disagree with anything he said. Of course, the devil will certainly be in the detail and we cannot yet know if delivery will boil down to the same old, same old. Yet for extensive livestock regions like my own West Country, his vision seems to be ticking all the right boxes and the most we can hope for is that Gove is there long enough to push through his ideas into legislation. His performance in creating a vision and traction even amidst the swirl of the Brexit black hole, will no doubt make him a first choice to lead one of the great Offices of State should re-shuffles require it.

Even with our Secretary of State being an asset rather than a liability, we are still a long way from the home straight towards a better future for UK farming. Me thinks there is a Fox in the henhouse. And undoubtedly he goes by the name of Liam.

IF Gove stays in DEFRA long enough to steer his vision through into legislation, and IF his vision can resist the inevitable compromises of a cash-strapped government as it translates into policy, and IF the detail of that policy recognises the real value of all the direct and collateral outcomes of farming to both economy and society, and IF that results in farmers being rewarded with a fair price for the food they produce and the environmental goods they deliver . . . . . it could still all be all for nowt if undermined by injurious trade deals brokered in faraway places by Mr Fox who appears to have little regard for UK Agriculture in his quest to bring home the shiny new trade details he has repeatedly claimed will be inevitable dividend of Brexit for new Global Britain.

There is no doubt the UK farmers can deliver Mr Gove’s vision of being a world leading producer of food of the highest welfare, traceability, nutrition and sustainability standards whilst delivering human and environmental health outcomes for society at large. But as Minette Batters observed, whilst speaking on the same platform as Gove, “if anything is going to throw farming’s future under the wheels of the bus, it will be Trade Deals.”

So all eyes turn westward to Trump-town, where Windy Miller and Farmer Bell are at this minute busy applying chlorine to their chicken and routine doses of anti-biotics to livestock that far exceed the EU’s recommendation of 50mg of anti-biotic per kg liveweight of farmed animals. Never mind that a trade deal with powerful countries such as the USA could torpedo Gove’s Good Ship of Aspiration for UK food and farming. What about the body blow it could deal to overcoming the existential threat of Anti-Microbial Resistance? Just as a thought.

Liam Fox has put himself under tremendous pressure to deliver on his Brexit promise of Trade Deals In Our Time. If the cost of doing those deals is to drop the bar on standards for food imported into the lucrative UK market, I doubt he will pause for thought before signing on the dotted line. Meanwhile the vision for UK farming will be seriously, if not fatally, undermined. Farming has precious little influence over Liam Fox’s department for international trade, so we had better hope that our big hitting Minister who has the intellectual clout and political acumen to hold DIT to account, stays in situ long enough to fight this particular battle for us.

Photograph: Chloe Edwards

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