Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies, which gives the UK a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-design our approach to food production, environmental protection and the rural economy.
For decades the CAP has sponsored a bureaucratic approach to food production that has paid out subsidy to farmers on the basis of land ownership, regardless of a farmer’s innovation and his or her environmental stewardship. Meanwhile, the CFP has reduced UK fish stocks and hollowed-out our coastal communities. DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove is proposing to replace the CAP with a regime that will award farmers and land managers public money for delivering ‘public goods’. He has also pledged to regain control over UK waters and fish stocks, though this won’t be possible until the transition period ends in December 2020.
On 15th March Prosperity UK brought together over 300 farmers, environmental campaigners, conservationists, agri-tech entrepreneurs, research scientists and green investors to discuss the proposition that Green Brexit represents a new era for farming, fishing and the environment. This is a diverse group with a range of views on Brexit; what brings it together is the opportunity to replace the CAP and CFP with something better. Some are inspired by Michael Gove’s ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan, others remain sceptical that it is deliverable but there is a consensus that Michael Gove is moving in the right direction, and a sense that everyone at the conference was willing him to keep going.
Here’s what I learned:
(1) The UK is an established leader in many ‘green’ areas including climate change science, sustainable finance, ocean conservation and agri-tech. The entrepreneur Craig Sams argued that London was the obvious location for a new global carbon market. If Green Brexit mainstreams sustainable innovation, and informs a new approach to boosting productivity this will enhance the UK’s influence in sustainable economics. The world-wide success of Blue Planet II has demonstrated the UK’s soft power. International collaboration is vital as we face threats that cross borders, requiring collective action and response. The UK Government should seize this opportunity to project a vision of Global Britain as catalyst for new alliances, international protocols and rule-setting. One idea discussed at the conference by Polymateria, a UK start up pioneering biodegradable plastics, and the insurance giant Aviva is a “London Protocol” to phase out the use of plastics, and introduce new standards for biodegradable and compostable packaging.
(2) The environmental lobby is pinching itself that a Tory Secretary of State is proposing a coherent policy programme that connects clean air, restored soil health, animal welfare and agri-tech. To green ears Michael Gove sounds urgent, pragmatic and generous-spirited. There was some surprise that the link between good environmental stewardship, sustainable food production and public health wasn’t more clearly stated in DEFRA’s Plan, but the mood among environmental campaigners like Tony Juniper is upbeat. As the CEO of one NGO told me, “I’ve spent 25 years as an anti-government protester and suddenly I find myself agreeing with DEFRA.”
(3) The farming and land-owning lobbies are more cautious. Until they get more detail, Michael Gove’s talk about a new land subsidy regime based on ‘public money for public goods’ sounds unsettling. What precisely is meant by public goods, how are they achieved, and this achievement measured? Is food not a public good, asked Minette Batters, the NFU’s new President? The possibility that new trade agreements will expose UK farmers to lower cost food is another uncertainty. A seminar discussion on the role of financial markets left some wondering whether there was sufficient investment capital patient enough to underwrite a transition by farmers to more sustainable practices.
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Few farmers are rich, most depend upon subsidy though they don’t like it. The farming lobby groups like the NFU say that farmers take their responsibilities as guardians of landscape and biodiversity very seriously. DEFRA’s focus on restoring natural capital (a value fixed to natural assets like rivers, hedgerows, soils and species that could be used to measure the quality of our environment) is another example of UK innovation – the concept was developed by the British economist Professor Dieter Helm, who spoke at the conference – but it represents another break with business as usual. ‘If money is stripped too quickly out of the profitable elements of the industry, we will endanger not only farmers, but also the nation’s food supply chain, rural communities, and ultimately the countryside … profitable farming and landowners only, will deliver the environmental renaissance we all want’ is an approximation of what I heard from several farmers.
(4) Droving the environmentalists and the food producers down the same path feels difficult but do-able. These two interest groups have traditionally felt wary of one another and for different reasons each regards itself as being uniquely threatened. Both are experienced Whitehall skirmishers. But there is already common-ground: both groups accept Brexit is happening and see it as an opportunity to make Britain greener and cleaner; both value the fact they have an ambitious thinker like Michael Gove as their Secretary of State; no one opposes his vision of ‘a more rational, and sensitive agriculture policy, which promotes environmental enhancement, supports profitable food production and contributes to a healthier society’. Michael Gove’s challenge is now to reassure the farmers that his ‘agricultural transition’ won’t hurt their bottom line.
(5) During a seminar discussion on reducing carbon emissions, Bruce Huber, a London based investor in energy technology and infrastructure, warned that the UK’s decision to leave the EU had already caused ‘headwinds’, switching the UK from the gateway into the world’s largest energy market to a single domestic market, which is fragmented, opaque and lagging in R&D investment. The UK’s strengths in innovation, regulatory frameworks and financing should make it a leader in developing the next wave of energy technology but first the government must urgently provide a bold UK energy strategy, meaningful amounts of investment capital and incentives for firms to invest here. Without this urgent action, the UK risks becoming an importer of new energy technologies, and an exporter of jobs.
Alex Hickman is Director of Prosperity UK
You can watch videos of all of the Green Brexit Conference Speeches and Seminar Discussions here.