Love him or loathe him, one thing you can never accuse Michael Gove of is being a safe politician. Taken at face value (and more on that later), the vision that Gove presented at the recent Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) represented the greatest shift in food and farming policy since Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, and consequently signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
By signalling that future farm subsidies will be directed exclusively towards the provision of public goods such as soil fertility, new wildlife habitats, biodiversity, and water quality, Gove signalled his intention to break with a half-century-old economic model. And by devoting a whole section of his speech to how interventions to support food production impact on the nation’s health, he decisively distanced himself from recent Conservative environment secretaries whose public pronouncements gave audiences the impression that the food system ended at the farm gate, or at best the factory.
Entire passages of Gove’s speech could have been written by the Green Alliance – an astonishing statement to write and in direct contrast to recent keynote speeches by secretaries of state over which the National Farmers Union appeared to hold editing rights. Social media was abuzz with praise for Gove from green campaigners who just six months ago had publicly expressed their dismay at his appointment.
Yet, those celebrating the dawn of a new age of environmentalism should proceed with caution. Nothing has yet been delivered. Indeed, for the foreseeable future nothing will change with Gove having guaranteed basic farm payments under the current subsidy regime until 2024 with a gradual tapering down of the largest payments.
There are a number of persuasive arguments why Gove’s vision will never translate into practice.
First and foremost is the question of job security. Planning and delivering a new food and farming policy will take many years. Historically, environment secretaries have been fortunate to survive even half of a five-year parliamentary cycle (the majority of incumbents either ousted following a crisis or promoted to a more senior cabinet post). Gove is an ambitious man. There is a school of thought that his resurrection as an environmental champion is a smokescreen and his real goal is to maintain his public and political profile whilst positioning himself for a post in one of the big offices of state. The question must be asked: is this really an agreed government position on the future of food and the environment post-Brexit, or is Gove pursuing a personal, reformist agenda that will be quietly shut down in the event of his departure?
Even if Gove stays, his ambitious agenda risks intensifying old divisions over the purpose of the countryside that could derail the entire project if they result in all-out war. The mainstream farming community has been measured in its public response to Gove’s proposals, but behind the scenes mutterings from farmers that “you can’t eat buttercups” are already being heard. Indeed, Gove’s greatest challenge may be to get ideologically-opposite groups to sign up to a shared narrative that recognises the reliance of food production on a healthy environment, but acknowledges that a healthy environment relies on a thriving rural economy underpinned by productive and profitable agriculture.
More clues as to whether Gove can square this circle will emerge over the coming months with the publication of a 25-year environment plan and the agriculture bill. Both documents may validate his vision, but they could just as easily undermine it if the policy detail fails to align with the sweeping ambition.
That said, Gove’s speech included several policy ideas that, if properly fleshed out, could win support across the entire food chain.
Take his proposal for a new “gold-standard metric for food and farming quality”. Certification schemes are popular with both food and farming businesses because of the assurance they give the customer that certain standards have been upheld. But the reality is that at a time when consumers are looking for simple messages there are simply too many schemes serving different purposes to deliver optimal value to businesses. A unified marque for sustainability would hold huge appeal for many companies, albeit getting there would be fraught with difficulties.
Gove’s remark that policy should look at the food-chain as a whole, from farm to fork, will also have played well with many businesses, campaigners and others working in food policy who have long been crying out for a more joined up approach. Even more eye-catching was Gove’s recognition that government interventions along the food chain should achieve positive outcomes for public health, economic justice and social inclusion during a passage in which he linked changing diets to the growth in obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. These are words that Conservative environment secretaries simply do not speak.
Delivering on these promises will be much harder. There is scant recent precedent for effective collaboration between Defra and the Department of Health to ensure production-side policies do not create negative health outcomes. As influential a politician as Gove is, he will face an uphill task in working across departments to create the rounded food policy he claims to desire.
Finally, and inevitably, there is the spectre of Brexit to consider. In many ways Gove’s vision is a manifestation of the Leave campaign’s ‘take back control’ mantra. But he must know as well as anyone that his proposals may not be compatible with a post-Brexit trade policy that seeks to maximise global trading opportunities. Gove noted the importance of trade in agricultural products with the EU-27 in his speech. Yet any significant deviation from the CAP risks creating new barriers to trade with Europe. Member states will not be prepared to grant tariff-free access for British food if they believe a new subsidy regime advantages UK producers in any way. Similarly, partners like the US will be pushing for the removal of trade barriers, including subsidies and standards, to be enshrined in future trade deals.
Gove says it would be foolish for the UK to lower animal welfare or environmental standards in trade deals, and in so doing undercut the UK’s own reputation for quality. He is surely right; however, he hasn’t yet provided a convincing answer as to how this squares with his ambition to secure new free trade deals with foreign countries.
This, along with many other questions, needs to be answered in the months ahead. But that shouldn’t forestall acknowledgement of the radical shift in direction that Gove’s speech signals. In his book – “All Out War” – chronicling the EU referendum campaign, the Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman notes that David Cameron was horrified by Gove’s taste for what he termed “creative destructionism”. With his speech to the OFC, Gove has reverted to type and in the process destroyed the accepted wisdom that the job of DEFRA lead is to avert crisis and keep the farming lobby happy.
Gove’s hand has to an extent been forced by Brexit; but equally there was no need for him to set out such a transformative agenda, and certainly not before trade negotiations have begun.
The former education and justice secretary was damaged politically by his decision in 2016 to abandon Boris Johnson’s campaign and run for leader of the Conservative Party. And he remains scarred by his failure to convince the education establishment of his reform agenda. But if Gove can deliver on his ambitious plan for protecting our planet he may still be remembered as a great reformer who gambled with our future – and his own – and won.
* A version of this blog was first published by Footprint magazine