Michael Gove certainly talks a good game. In the Environment Secretary’s speech to the 2019 Oxford Farming Conference he espoused views that would sit favourably in any green forum: “Beef or soybeans produced to scale on land in other countries that have been cleared of vast hectares of forests may appear cheap but in fact such food is costing the earth.”
The government has announced a seven-year transition period for agriculture, beyond the 21-month transition period set out in the EU Withdrawal Agreement, to enable farmers to plan ahead. And with an ordered departure you would surely expect to see a stop to the inefficient area-based payments which reward the rich and hold back small-scale farming initiatives.
So with the best of a bad lot as Environment Secretary, and two thirds of EU regulatory environmental protections already enshrined in UK law, is farming really in danger from Brexit – deal or no deal?
If you look closer at the much vaunted Green Brexit, Gove’s realpolitik dictates non-legally binding measures which override policy promises and easy soundbites.
The draft Environment Bill, announced by Theresa May last July and to be published in full this September, is regulatory ‘lite’: the proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be hamstrung by having the government deciding its budget and appointing its officials.
What could have been a truly independent body with members elected or chosen without government interference and a budget set to its own strictures is now far from that.
On top of that lack of independence comes a lack of proper authority, so that post-Brexit, the policing of environmental protections - currently undertaken by the European Commission - will be passed to a body with an inability to even levy fines.
Take air pollution - in 2017 the UK faced daily five-figure fines from the European Commission for flouting EU limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. Who would hold the government fully to account to the same extent post-Brexit?
Tom Fyans, Director of Campaigns and Policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, told The Ecologist: “We are seriously concerned that the proposed Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) will lack the true independence required to hold the government to account.
"While it has some useful legal powers, there are significant unanswered questions regarding its relationship with the planning system, when decisions are in breach of environmental law, and how it will engage with climate change – the greatest threat to the countryside. “
He added that future environmental priorities like targets for improvements to air and water quality required “much more work”.
Lexiters might see the loss of the EU Commission’s mandate over the UK in this area as no bad thing, pointing for example to the collapse of the Greek environmental regulatory system following EU banking institutions’ ‘attack’ on Greece post-2009.
Some environmentalists are sceptical of the EU’s claims to be the environment’s best champion, and claim that it caused among other things: attacks on and privatisations of Greek national parks; mass sell-offs of public land; a rush of predatory development, particularly on islands and coasts, leading to ecological as well as social ruination.
Dave Bangs, author of three books on the South Downs and Surrey Weald and a leading naturalist and botanist put it this way: “Most of the wildlife professionals are focused on the enviro-regulatory measures ... which are sticking plasters on an abscess. I voted Brexit because the EU is a cabal of corporations and their political infrastructure.
“It has nothing to do with democracy and nothing to do with internationalism. Look at Schengen, look at the Mediterranean mass drownings. I've been an internationalist all my life ... for a socialist united states of Europe, not a gang of robber barons.”
In terms of food production he asks what could be worse than the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies, “denuding our seas and exacerbating ‘abandonment’ and hyper-intensification of farmed land”.
In the wider world there is a tendency to techno-fixes that Gove is fully signed up to. So use of artificial intelligence, sophisticated analysis of big data, drone development, machine learning and robotics and most controversially, gene editing (GM crops) - all are supported by the Environment minister as “a way to escape from the bureaucratic straitjacket of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and develop a more vibrant farming sector with access to technologies”.
Using these techniques will form the next phase in farming - “a revolution”, no less, which the “EU is turning its back on” and will - he argues - “allow us to dramatically improve productivity on traditionally farmed land not least by reducing the need for labour, minimising the imprint of vehicles on the soil, applying inputs overall more precisely, adjusting cultivation techniques more sensitively and therefore using far fewer natural resources, whether carbon, nitrogen or water, in order to maximise growth”.
If you were to try to sell this to small-scale organic farmers in the UK or subsistence farmers in China and India they all point to methods passed down from generation to generation looking to work in concert with nature rather than seeking to squeeze the last drop out of her while putting in the bare minimum.
On the flip side Gove’s latest pronouncements include coded warnings to climate change deniers of the Trump and Bolsonaro ilk: the earlier stated reference to forest clearance costing the earth and then this concerning US agro-industrialisation: “We must maintain our own high environmental and animal welfare standards, and we must not barter them away in pursuit of a necessarily short-term trade-off”.
The UK would be forced (under WTO rules) to make unsatisfactory deals with countries like Australia and the US if it loses a significant tranche of EU market share due to the import and export tariffs. This would entail less stringent animal welfare regulations.
Consider the potential imports of chlorinated chicken from the US, a practice currently banned in the UK over concerns that by washing carcasses with chlorine you fail to kill all salmonella and because this process acts as an incentive for poorer hygiene standards in animal rearing.
Bacteria are more prevalent in US flocks due to extreme intensification methods which have seen 15,500 mega farms or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) established coast to coast.
Just one of these huge operations is capable of housing up to 1.7m birds crammed into inhumane cages and aircraft hangar-like sheds. In the UK there are currently just shy of 800 of these. The question being asked by animal welfare groups is, do we really want closer economic ties like these?
In terms of UK farming itself, post-Brexit, Gove touts Environmental Land Management (ELM) contracts which are payment by results-based initiatives like planting and managing species rich meadows.
These ELMs are being piloted over the next two years in Norfolk, Suffolk and Yorkshire, and will provide farmers “with a pipeline of income to supplement the money they make from food production, forestry and other business activities”.
They are the government’s answer to the Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) agri-environment schemes which, according to Gove, have been “overly bureaucratic and inflexible and have impeded innovation for farmers who are passionate about the environment and want to see real change”.
However, the overall success of ELM contracts will be blighted once EU farming subsidies are gone and the EU farm workers’ free movement stymied. Farmland is set to become the worst-hit sector in the entire UK residential and commercial property sector, according to property experts Savills, falling by 3.6 percent per year on year.
So some in the farming industry are asking how many of us will have the luxury of set asides when the economic reality will be hitting home?
Gove’s ‘maximising growth’ mantra will surely lead to the jettisoning of a more accommodating farming approach based on the sound ecological principles of agro forestry; soil health; water quality and pollinator habitat improvement; support of the organic movement; landscape restoration and biodiversity enrichment; and improvements in public access to the countryside.
In its place UK farming faces less biodiversity and more monoculture spurred on by technical advances which dispense with the husbandry of 60 years ago, reliant upon deep ecological ties with the land as well as an intuitive grasp of the seasons and the integral part played by insects, birds and wildlife.
The driver to all this, financing the farming sector, has led Gove to promise the same spend on farm support after leaving the EU up to the end of this parliament, granting a “greater degree of security over future funding for farming than that enjoyed by any other existing eu nation”.
But even if he delivers on this promise – and let’s not forget how his former boss David Cameron promised the ‘greenest government ever’ – will the continued payments really deliver sufficient environmental, as opposed to agri-business, benefits?
And how long will Gove last anyway in these politically unstable times where days of a here today, gone tomorrow politician will surely be just round the corner. How long before normal service is resumed and he’s replaced by a more compliant, agro-industrialist in the Owen Patterson mould?
Which leads us back to the question, will the UK be worse off agriculturally and environmentally when it comes to Brexit? All the signs seem to point to yes, whether we have a no deal or an ordered Brexit.
In the event of no-deal we would face a loss of trade and concomitant closer alliances with countries like Australia and the US with their poorly regulated food and farming industries.
And in the event of a ‘deal’, and the ordered roll out of the Office of Environmental Protection, this body would in fact have less authority and independence than the European Commission.
Staying in through a successful Remain vote in a second referendum may well be the best bet for the environment, if it came to pass.
Jan Goodey is a freelance writer on environmental matters working mainly for The Ecologist.