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Animal welfare, broadband and research are ‘public goods’ which farmers could be paid for, says Michael Gove

PUBLISHED: 16:24 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:24 20 February 2018

Environment secretary Michael Gove speaking at the 2018 NFU Conference.
 Picture by Simon Hadley.

Environment secretary Michael Gove speaking at the 2018 NFU Conference. Picture by Simon Hadley.

Simon Hadley/ www.simonhadley.co.uk

Enhancing animal welfare, improving broadband and 4G coverage, and investing in productivity research are among the “public goods” which could receive public funding after Brexit, Michael Gove told farmers.

Environment secretary Michael Gove speaking at the 2018 NFU Conference.
 Picture by Simon Hadley.
Environment secretary Michael Gove speaking at the 2018 NFU Conference. Picture by Simon Hadley.

East Anglian delegates were among those who raised questions to the environment secretary during his appearance at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham.

Mr Gove sought to reassure them that food and drink is at the heart of the government’s agenda, and gave more details about his plan to replace the EU’s land-based subsidies after Brexit with a payment scheme which distributes taxpayers’ money for the provision of “public goods”.

He said the most important of those is environmental protection and enhancement, but the definition could extend to animal welfare, technology and productivity measures.

“I believe investing in higher animal welfare standards and investing in improved training and education for those in agriculture and food production are clear public goods,” he said.

“We have a high baseline for animal health standards, which we will continue to enforce.

“However, we could also support industry-led initiatives to improve these standards, especially in cases where animal welfare remains at the legislative minimum.”

“This may include pilot schemes that offer payments to farmers delivering higher welfare outcomes, or payments to farmers running trial approaches and technologies to improve animal welfare that are not yet an industry standard.”

READ MORE: Michael Gove announces review of ‘bureaucratic’ farm inspection regime

Mr Gove said he also believed public funds should be invested in research and development to improve productivity and bring further environmental benefits.

“Whether it’s automation and machine learning, data science or gene-editing, improved tracking and traceability of livestock or new plant bio-security measures, there are specific innovations which will increase productivity across farming, bring food costs down for all, help us improve human and animal health and ensure we better protect the environment,” he said. “These are public goods which should be funded, and they can only be fully realised if we invest in a way which individual farmers and land owners are simply not equipped to on their own.”

Another public good which the minister said was “of critical interest and vital benefit” to farmers is fast broadband and 4G mobile coverage, adding that the £60bn bill from the HS2 rail project cost “30 times as much as it would cost to provide universal superfast broadband”.

“Surely investment in broadband is just as vital and urgent a part of improving our critical national infrastructure?” he said.

More detail on post-Brexit policy proposals and the future system of agricultural support will be in the government’s agriculture Command Paper, due to be published shortly. “But it is a consultation not a conclusion,” said Mr Gove.

After concerns were raised that trade deals with countries including the US could damage the competitiveness of British farming by allowing cheap imports of produce such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, Mr Gove said there would be no “race to the bottom” by compromising the UK’s quality standards.

“We will not lower environmental or animal welfare standards as part of any new trade deals,” he said. “We should no more lower our standards than the best brands in any market would lower theirs. Indeed, together, we should aim higher.”

NFU East Anglia regional director Robert Sheasby said he was encouraged by Mr Gove’s speech.

“The mood of the East Anglian members was very positive around what the secretary of state said,” he said.

“He talked about the rural economy needing profitable agriculture, and what is absolutely critical is the commitment that British agriculture will never have food coming in with lower standards. I think he believes he can deliver that.

“With research and development, he was clear that the investment in enabling technology can help deliver a better environment, he realises that broadband and 4G is ‘critical infrastructure’, and wider than that he picked up on the long-term benefits of healthy food to public health as well.

“And he mentioned the values of ‘health, beauty and permanence’ – these are things that farmers across East Anglia have been delivering already for years.”

EAST ANGLIAN FARMING QUESTIONS

Questions to the environment secretary included two from East Anglian NFU members on the subjects of rural crime and post-Brexit competition.

Will Dickinson, NFU East Anglia’s regional board chairman, asked: “You recently talked about protecting the environment from the unscrupulous, unprincipled and careless fly-tippers despoiling our beautiful countryside, and hare coursing gangs terrorising our rural communities. How will you commit to address this issue, including a review of sentencing to ensure the penalties imposed reflect the seriousness of the crimes?”

Mr Gove replied: “The actions of some of those involved in rural crime are disgusting. It is not the individual act of a careless and selfish person, it is linked with organised crime. I am working with the Home Office and others to work out what the response should be. We have increased some of the penalties, but it is not enough. I recognise it is an urgent problem and I will come back very soon with some proposals on how to deal with this.”

Michael Sly, who is based at Park Farm in Thorney in Cambridgeshire, and is chairman of the NFU Sugar Board, asked: “Farm businesses are ready to seize the opportunity that Brexit offers, but clarity on future trading agreements is essential to provide the confidence to invest. Speaking as a sugar beet grower, how will you ensure that future trade agreements will offer a level playing field?”

Mr Gove said: “We want to carry on with tariff-free and as frictionless as possible trade with the EU. It is in their interests for that to work for the EU as well. At the moment the EU sells more to us in food and drink than we sell to them, and there are some countries that are particularly exposed in their access to the UK markets, so there is a strong incentive for a deal to be concluded.

“No-one in this room wants a race to the bottom in terms of food standards. We believe that British farmers succeed by having high standards that are backed up by government support, and we are not going to score an advantage over our EU neighbours by deregulating. Quite the opposite.”

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