Pressure is mounting on Defra secretary Michael Gove to unveil a coherent post-Brexit vision for UK agriculture when he addresses next week’s Conservative Party conference.
Mr Gove will speak at a number of events during the four-day conference in Manchester – including an NFU fringe meeting on Monday (2 October), where growers and livestock producers will get the opportunity to quiz him.
Cabinet ministers usually receive a polite reception at NFU meetings. But frustration is growing among many farmers at an ongoing lack of detail from Defra and other government departments about what Brexit means for UK agriculture.
Particular concern surrounds the way Mr Gove might make good his three-pronged pledge to deliver cheaper food for consumers while simultaneously ratcheting up UK production standards and reducing the amount of red tape faced by farmers.
It is hard to see how these three aims might be achieved without disadvantaging British farmers by opening the door to a flood of cheap food imports. Raising food standards usually raises costs – and frequently results in more bureaucracy too.
The difficulties and uncertainty faced by farmers trying to prepare their businesses for Brexit were highlighted by industry leaders and opinion formers who gathered for a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum meeting in London last week.
“We need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally responsible land use”
Speaking at the forum, NFU acting head of policy services Helen Ferrier said divergent opinions, including among Cabinet ministers, were causing some difficulty for farmers.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty and a not insignificant amount of confusion,” she said.
Despite pledging to work with farm leaders to find the best way forward, much of Mr Gove’s emphasis since his appointment in June has revolved around a so-called Green Brexit – prioritising environmental measures rather than productive agriculture.
Earlier this summer, in a 5,000-word speech outlining his vision for the natural environment, Mr Gove said: “We need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally responsible land use.”
“We need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally responsible land use.”
Mr Gove is yet to make a similar high-profile speech detailing his vision for agriculture.
Despite the government’s announcement of a two-year Brexit transition period, industry leaders say they require urgent answers on a range of issues from trade to labour.
The NFU meeting will also be addressed by Food and Drink Federation director-general Ian Wright.
He said: “Businesses need time to prepare and plan for a new UK-EU relationship, and a proper transition phase is vital so we can continue to give consumers the quality, choice and value they rightly expect.”