Listening to Andrea Leadsom address the Oxford Farming Conference on Monday, it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Defra Secretary of State. It wasn’t just the unfortunate opening observation that farming had been around “as long as mankind itself”, which discounted the vast majority of human history occupied by hunter-gatherers.
Leadsom’s speech also exemplified the ‘Brexit paradox’ that faces the UK government: the need to remain relentlessly upbeat about the UK’s prospects in order to reassure businesses and satisfy the majority of the electorate who voted to leave, whilst being unable to give any detail about what this post-Brexit utopia might look like in practice. The result was a speech big on bombast and flattery but wafer thin on the kind of specifics that the farmers in the room were demanding.
In the Q&A that followed (and credit must go to Leadsom for fronting up rather than cutting and running), Leadsom offered a masterclass in evasion as delegates pressed her for details on issues such as market access, seasonal labour and subsidies. This was not your typical politician’s obfuscation, however. Leadsom simply didn't have the answers. And for all her warm words on farming being “at the heart of all of our lives” and praise for the “quality and reputation” of British food, the muted applause that accompanied her exit was a sign that her public wanted more, much more, and not by way of an encore.
The Defra press release that accompanied the speech was spot on when it said the environment secretary set out her “ambition” for the food and farming industry. No doubt Leadsom has an earnest desire to help create a better food and farming system – an ambition that everyone involved in the food sector can surely subscribe to. What she did not present here was a plan or even a sketch of where we might be after 2020, until when farmers have been promised a continuation in direct support.
Leadsom’s speech was full of statements and promises that served only to create more questions for herself. She vowed to scrap burdensome EU regulations “that hold us back”, such as the EU’s three-crop rule (previously supported by the UK government), but failed to address what this might mean for single market access.
Promises to scrap red tape may play well with the right wing of the Conservative Party – and indeed with many farmers – but when they’re set against the risk of losing access to vital EU markets they become more contentious.
And so in the absence of any clarity over the uncertainties facing the industry, Leadsom resorted to Defra’s favourite subject: trade, and more specifically, exports, with the secretary of state restating her desire to see “more Great British food grown, sold, and consumed around the world”.
There were some salient points too. Food and drink, Leadsom noted, is already the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – adding more value to the economy than the car and aerospace industries combined. For this reason, and many more, it should be central to any Brexit settlement.
From a foodservice perspective, McDonald’s won praise for its Progressive Young Farmers scheme in respect of the government’s desire to attract more young people into the industry.
There was the promise also of a consultation on two long awaited green papers on food and farming and the environment that should at least give a clearer indication of the government’s future policy direction despite, bafflingly, remaining separate entities.
As things stand, however, political opponents are worried that the prospects for a healthy, sustainable and prosperous food system lie in the balance. The Green Party MEP, Molly Scott Cato, said rather than using the opportunities offered by Brexit to encourage a move towards a diverse and ecologically sustainable farming system, the government seemed determined “to dive headlong into encouraging damaging monocultures”, in reference to the threat to axe the three crop rule.
The secretary of state certainly talked a good game where the environment was concerned, reaffirming her ambition to “become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”. But her words rung somewhat hollow when set against pledges to burn the red tape that for the most part is designed to provide environmental protection and safeguard animal and human health.
Leadsom knows she is walking a tightrope. She acknowledged as much when she said: “In this room, there are as many views on the future of farming as there are actual farmers.” She can’t expect to keep everyone happy. But until the government is able to put some meat on the bones of its Brexit strategy, Leadsom should get used to fielding difficult questions and departing the stage to muted applause.