Editor’s view: Coffey’s last stand should cheer farmers

With her job on the line this week, Therese Coffey delivered her strongest speech since taking the lead at Defra.

She backed glyphosate use, branding it a safe and sensible tool to protect crop yields, and said George Monbiot’s vision for the future of agriculture – where animal protein is predominantly replaced by large-scale bacterial fermentation – is “fake food” and “not a sensible approach”.

See also: Editor’s view: Is environment falling on government priority list?

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desks. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
Read more articles by Andrew Meredith

The former view caused some more delicate members of the audience at the event, organised by The Spectator, to reach for their smelling salts, and the latter has already caused a fresh storm on social media.

What a contrast to her usual low-wattage performances, where she has frequently come across to farmer groups as irritable and disinterested, leading many to conclude she wasn’t particularly concerned about whether or not she retained the job.

That now appears not to be the case, with her even going as far as saying that she anticipated being secretary of state “for a considerable time”.

Why is this necessary? Well, Westminster rumours persistently swirl about her being reshuffled the next time prime minister Rishi Sunak changes his top team – with speculation that this could happen either by the time this piece has been published or in September.

She is consistently the least popular member of the cabinet among Tory party members, as polled by the Conservative Home website, with her current satisfaction rating deep in negative territory.

Nor is she protected by being part of Sunak’s faction, having been one of Liz Truss’s key allies during her brief time in power, with many suggesting she was only kept in the cabinet after Truss’s departure to placate that wing of the Conservative Party.

It will be remarkable to many farmers that the sentiments expressed above, so normal and unsurprising, even needed uttering, let alone be considered part of some defiant last stand.

Yet it is cheering that Coffey chose to slam factory meat, not at a gathering of farmers for a cheap round of applause but, in London in front of environmentalists and financiers, many of whom have probably invested in the failing technology.

And failing it is. First consumers turned their back on it, with the AHDB noting in February that one million fewer households bought meat-free products in January compared with the same month the previous year.

Then the financial community realised even their lavish start-up funds would not sustain this loss-making business model and started withdrawing support.

This led to the collapse of prominent brands such as Meatless Farm, which burned through close to £90m before declaring bankruptcy. (Its assets were later purchased by another plant meat business, VFC.)

Now with even cautious front-line politicians feeling safe to go on the attack, it is yet another sign that any doom-mongers forecasting the imminent demise of the meat industry are firmly in retreat.

This should be a moment of quiet satisfaction for farmers, rather than noisy celebration.

Coffey’s words matter, but her actions matter more – as do those of her counterparts in all the other nations.

Each has enormously ambitious targets to deliver with a modest budget and a creaking departmental infrastructure – as evidenced by the fresh criticism of Natural England this week.

Whether any of them have days, months or years remaining in post, it is to be hoped they redouble their efforts to shepherd as many farmers through this period of enormous change that we are still only in the foothills of.

All politicians ultimately fail. Victory will be outlasting them.

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