Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Gove presents a landmark opportunity to transform agriculture

The environmental and animal welfare movements have called for a green and ethical Brexit. In response, Theresa May has given us a gift-wrapped Michael Gove - a 'disruptor', a free thinker, an intelligent and thoughtful man, ready and able to take on vested interests.  

Despite the cellophane and ribbons there is a remarkable level of mistrust from NGOs towards a man who could not have made his support for a Green Brexit clearer if he had painted himself emerald and howled it from the highest dome of the Eden Project.

Let us be clear - the Conservatives own rural policy in Britain. Conservatives run rural councils. Farmers as an industry vote Conservative, and most of our land mass is owned by Conservative supporters.

It is the Conservatives who have the ready-made mandate to reform agricultural land use, and to deliver the brighter, greener future that Britain's countryside so desperately needs. If they are minded to, the Conservatives can reform from the centre, and expect to command the support of blue-rinsed local authorities on the ground.

If they are prepared to, then Conservatives can take on their voter-base and force through ethical and environmental reform in agriculture, secure in the knowledge that Conservative voters have nowhere else to go - UKIP is a busted flush, and farmers upset with Tory greenery are hardly going to shift to the Lib Dems or Labour (who support a strong green agenda already).

And Mr Gove has said loud and clear that he expects farmers to change.  That in future public payments will be tied to the restoration of our natural capital, and that environmental and welfare standards will be stricter not weaker after Brexit.

As Green Alliance chief executive, Shaun Spiers, said on Twitter today, 'It would be a foolish politician who made promises that he had no intention of keeping.'

So let's take a moment to record Mr Gove's vaunting ambition for the environment, so that in due course we can hold him to account.  

Last Friday, Mr Gove described an 'unfrozen moment' for Britain's environment. 'Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, and therefore how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas. And we can recast our ambition for our country's environment, and the planet. In short it means a Green Brexit.'  

Mr Gove said that Britain should become 'a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition that we inherited it.'

This is precisely what Farmwel has been calling for - a science-based, outcome-centric transformation of these islands, so that Britain becomes a world leader in welfare and environmental quality; an innovator in clean agricultural technologies, in standards, and in techniques to make food production environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable. 

So are environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners happy?  No it seems.  For every pace Mr Gove moves forward, there is a news cycle to take him three steps back. Since Friday there has been a rising tide of concern over the totemic issue of chlorinated chicken.  So, today Mr Gove has been explicit: 'We are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal.'

It's time to give the man a break. The government is already planning to move ahead on CCTV in abattoirs, it is considering a ban on live animal export, and it has recognised the desperate state of our nation's soil (which has lost 84% of its fertility since 1850).

Mr Gove has also made the case for public money for public goods.  He has said, 'I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many years to come.  But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.'

Mr Gove is promising radical reform of agricultural land use - the Green Brexit we've called for - and he's using language that NGOs could have written themselves.

So will he deliver?  Time will tell. We should be sceptical. With the best will in the world there is no doubt that Mr Gove will face the ire of powerful vested interests at every turn.  Politics is a process where ambition is routinely disappointed by compromise. But if there was ever a modern Conservative politician with the spleen to face the corporate, agro-chemical dragons - and to win - it's Michael Gove.

So now its time for green NGOs to move on.  The stage is set.  Promises have been made.  Our duty now is to work with government and help it deliver.  To demonstrate the public appetite for change.  To help identify the processes by which reform can be delivered, and the environmental and farm animal welfare outcomes and outcome measurements that will be needed to monitor reform on the ground.

If we get it right, then 10 years from now we will have a thriving food industry, with ethical, environmental, and economic sustainability embedded at its heart.

We have a responsibility to be part of that change.


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