British farmers can still produce competitively priced food – even if they face higher animal welfare standards and environmental measures, Defra secretary Michael Gove has insisted.
Higher production standards did not necessarily mean higher costs for farmers, Mr Gove told peers investigating the impact of Brexit on food, farming and the environment. In fact, food producers, consumers and the environment could all benefit, he said.
Mr Gove’s comments are likely to fuel concern among some farmers that the government is prioritising the environment at the expense of food production as it devises new policies for agriculture in preparation for the UK to leave the European Union.
But Mr Gove said: “As we reform the system of agricultural support we have at the moment, we can have a system that incentivises both better care for the environment and also better innovation in food productivity.”
As an example, Mr Gove said encouraging farmers to adopt techniques such as minimum tillage could improve soil health – bringing a variety of environmental benefits while reducing the spend on farm inputs such as diesel and reducing reliance on agrochemicals.
Mr Gove said it remained his belief there should be a limit on the amount of direct payments farmers should receive post Brexit. Instead, money should be directed towards environmental measures and encouraging innovation.
No-till techniques were just as productive in terms of output but more productive in terms of profitability because input expenditure was reduced. Mr Gove added: “We have, in effect, more efficient food production and higher environmental standards.”
Mr Gove also suggested that the government would encourage farmers to adopt higher animal welfare standards – even though UK standards are already considered by many in the livestock sector to be among the highest in the world.
“UK farmers can never and should not try to compete on the basis of producing the world’s cheapest food,” he said. British food and farming was a strong brand and best marketed on the basis of quality and provenance, he added.
Crossbench peer Lord Krebs said he was intrigued that Mr Gove believed it was possible to increase food production while at the same time enhancing the environment. “You can’t have it both ways – there is a choice there,” he said.
Former Defra minister Lord Rooker suggested higher welfare standards would make food more expensive. This could leave British farmers exposed to cheap imports of lower-standard food. He said: “People will buy on price – it is irritating but they do.”
Mr Gove said his ideas would be the subject of a public consultation. The government is expected to confirm and formalise its plans in an agriculture Bill due to be presented to parliament next year.