Knighthood for controversial Defra adviser

Government adviser Dieter Helm – who says food security shouldn’t be taken seriously – has been knighted in the 2021 New Year Honours list.

Professor Helm chaired the government’s Natural Capital Committee from 2012 to 2020, which advised the government on environmental policy and agriculture.

See also: Government adviser on subsidy post-Brexit

He was appointed Knight Bachelor for services to the environment, to energy and to utilities policy.

“The recognition of a lifetime of work on public policy is a great honour,” said Prof Helm, who is professor of economic policy at Oxford University.

Food and climate

Pursuing agricultural policies to provide food security would be economically burdensome is not the best defence policy, Prof Helm argued in 2019.

“Food security is largely an empty slogan of lobbyists,” he maintained. “It should not be taken seriously.”

Prof Helm has long opposed England’s Basic Payment Scheme – which is now being phased out – in favour of rewarding farmers who undertake environmental measures.

More recently, he told the Scottish government that “perverse” agricultural subsidies should be removed to help Scotland reach its Net Zero climate change targets.

Prof Helm argues that financial support for farmers cannot be justified where they obtain an income from the marketplace for the food they produce.

Instead, he says, farmers should be rewarded for providing environmental benefits such as cleaner air, cleaner water, public access to the countryside and carbon sequestration.

Public money, public goods

Prof Helm’s mantra of “public money for public goods” has largely been adopted by the government – and praised by environmentalists and wildlife groups – and by some farmers.

The Nature Friendly Farming Network, for example, favours such an approach – although not everyone agrees.

Described by former Defra secretary Michael Gove as a “brilliant” economist, Prof Helm is seen as the architect of the government’s 25-year environment plan.

Prof Helm said: “Over the last decade I have being working on the 25-year environment plan which is now being integrated into the Environmental Bill going through parliament.”

Published in 2018, the plan sets out how the UK government will meet its goal of leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.

It promises that the government will introduce new systems of agriculture that prioritises the environment after the UK leaves the European Union.

Habitat restoration

“The new system of support that we will bring in for farmers… will have environmental enhancement at its heart,” says the document.

“We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back.”

That plan is now being implemented.

It includes the phasing out of direct payments over seven years and the introduction of the forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme.

‘Farming first’

Critics including Farmers Weekly columnist and Norfolk farmer David Richardson say Prof Helm knows little about real farming.

Others have said he takes a simplistic view of the farmland market.

The NFU continues to argue that farmers are first and foremost food producers – and sustainable food production should be at the heart of UK agricultural policy.

It has also criticised Prof Helm’s views on food security, arguing that they fail to recognise the contribution food production makes to the economy.

The union argues that farmers are the bedrock of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – Britain’s food and drink industry – which is worth some £113 billion annually.

Without profitable food production, the NFU says growers and livestock producers will find it all but impossible to care for the environment fully.

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