Every January, almost as soon as the Hogmanay hangover has dissipated, leaders of the farming community gather amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford for the Oxford Farming Conference or even the alternative Oxford Real Farming Conference. I was not there this year, partly because it clashed with a shooting invitation and partly because most of it can be watched online.
As usual, the Secretary of State for Defra attended the first morning. He gave a coherent, even inspirational address on our future outside the EU, welcoming the fourth agricultural revolution. The first was when man turned from hunter/gatherer to farmer, the second came in the 18th century instigated by the great pioneers such as Jethro Tull and Turnip Townshend, the third was the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s led by Norman Borlaug and we are now embarking upon the fourth.
This will be led by technological advances such as robotics and gene editing. Our scientists lead the world in this respect and our universities produce the first class graduates to continue the breakthroughs. But we must encourage the exploitation of that research on our farms, in particular to overcome the antipathy from some quarters for gene editing.
Mr Gove spoke of the great success of our food and farming industry worth £113 billion a year and of a new food strategy that he has commissioned. A big part of that success is due to the very high standards of provenance and animal welfare that we espouse in this country. He committed the Government to maintain those standards and to not allow them to be undermined by imports from countries whose standards are much lower.
It was not until two thirds of the way through his address that Mr Gove mentioned the process of Brexit. He stressed that it was essential that we leave the EU with an orderly transition to a new relationship, outlining the horrors for British agriculture of leaving without a deal. He also addressed the criticism that the Agriculture Bill has little to offer farming, saying that the new Environmental Land Management and other schemes will contain measures to help farmers improve productivity.
He was followed by brief presentations from three further speakers before a joint question and answer session. President of the NFU, Minette Batters, called for greater certainty for the future of farming whilst Dr David Drew, Shadow Secretary of State for Defra, gave a remarkably incoherent talk also calling for more support for farmers. Whilst Mr Gove insisted that high British standards would be maintained, he was criticised for not allowing this to be enshrined in law. There was a serious threat of cheap, low quality ingredients being imported, processed and then sold as British products.
The theme of trade was picked up the next morning with an interesting debate. George Eustice, Farm Minister, the first speaker, stressed the scope for increased exports in new trade deals with other countries when we leave the EU, As the world’s third largest import market by value, we are a key target for future trade deals. Equally important, he said, is the opportunity for import substitution, for home-grown produce to replace imports such as Irish beef and Dutch or French dairy products.
Barry Gardiner, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade and Climate Change, warned that British agriculture could be compromised by a rush to sign new trade deals, particularly with the United States whose food standards are far below ours. He gave some examples from the US Defect Level Handbook that allows eleven rat hairs in a 25gm pack of paprika or 3mg of rat droppings per lb of ginger. If we want a comprehensive trade deal with the US we would have to accept imports produced to those standards.
Sir Lockwood Smith gave one of the most passionate and persuasive speeches of the conference. As a New Zealand farmer, former politician and one of the architects of the New Zealand trade transformation, he has experience relevant to our Brexit position. He was excited at the prospect of Britain creating new trade agreements but stressed this could not happen if the UK were in a customs union with the EU because that would preclude alternative regulatory alignments. He said that the world needed leadership, especially with Trump in the White House, a leadership that the UK could provide.
As always at Oxford, there were inspirational speeches from some of the most entrepreneurial young farmers in the country. There was an emphasis on innovation with talks from Sir Mark Walport, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Professor Christobal Uuay from the John Innes Centre, Professor Brendan Gilmour of Queen’s University Belfast and Julie Borlaug, daughter of Norman. The conference’s patron, the Princess Royal also gave an address.
I was impressed by Michael Gove. He is a consummate politician and, whatever his previous reputation, he has a comprehensive grasp of his current brief. Certainly in comparison with his Shadow, his was a coherent argument, although strong on aspiration and very weak on detailed implementation. Perhaps the main message of the part of the conference that I have covered is that Brexit has fiendishly complex implications and, as I write this, we seem no nearer finding an acceptable route through those complexities.