Farmers must be ready to adopt new technology and market their wares on the basis of quality, as future support shifts gradually towards environmental delivery.
Addressing a fringe meeting organised by the Countryside Alliance at this week’s Conservative Party conference, Defra secretary Michael Gove said his “vision” was for a countryside that was healthier and more productive than ever before.
“I want to work with the agriculture sector to make sure, as we move towards a new method of support, that we don’t do so too precipitously,” he said.
“I want to be able to say to individual farmers that, in broad cash terms, even if things are going to change over time, there will be a degree of certainty that they are not going to see a sudden fluctuation in the income that they get from government.”
The Defra secretary said using things such as drones and big data was “key” to raising productivity, while he used the example of malt whisky exports to show how British producers could use strong provenance to become “world beaters”.
With regards the shape of future support, Mr Gove insisted the provision of food could not be considered as a public good.
“We do not have a National Bread Service,” he said. “Public goods, as defined by economists, are things the market economy, left to its own devices, would not necessarily generate.”
These included things such as environmental enhancement, biodiversity and, in particular, public access, which all warranted taxpayer support.
“If we’re going to continue to have public money spent on the countryside, then the more people that are able to engage with it, at an early stage, the better,” he said.
But Mr Gove acknowledged that, in some upland, more marginal areas, there should still be mechanisms to support farming communities.
World Trade Organization rules limited such support to “income forgone”, so it was important farmers in these areas had opportunities to develop other income streams.
“We do need to be open-minded, and we might want to see a degree of experimentation,” he said.
“For example, we’ve seen the reintroduction of some native species which has allowed more income to be derived from tourism, as well as capturing environmental benefits.”
What else did Michael Gove say
Gove on trade
“Having tariff-free trade with the EU is an uber high priority. But if you say this is an absolute and we will not budge unless we get it, then the other side can say we want x, y and z in return, and then they have you on the back foot.”
Gove on access to labour
“Beyond [the two-year transition phases] I think it will be the case that, whether it is people from the EU or beyond, people who want to come here and work, should there be a demand, will be able to do so with appropriate permits.”
Gove on devolution
“I am anxious to make sure that, when powers come back from Europe, we’re in a position to devolve as much as possible. We need to be discussing with the devolved administrations about how they can ensure they augment their power in a way that preserves the integrity of the single UK market.”