Leaving the EU will be an "unprecedented opportunity" to remove onerous bureaucracy from UK farming, Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom told last week's Oxford Farming Conference. "I will be looking at scrapping the rules that hold us back and focusing instead on what works best for the UK," including abandoning the EU's "ridiculous, bureaucratic" three-crop rule, she said. "My priority will be common sense rules that work for you."
Defra will shortly publish green papers, on food and farming and the environment, and will launch "a major consultation on these important issues", she said. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look at new ideas and also at how other great farming nations operate. How do we manage risk and make the industry more resilient to extreme weather and price volatility? How can we prioritise capital investment and boost productivity? And how can we increase food production at the same time as enhancing our natural environment? No decisions will be taken without you."
Leadsom added: "To make the most of this we have got to get three, very crucial, things right - to equip the workforce with the right skills, to take innovation in farming to the next level and to export more of our Great British food and drink to the world."
She was guarded on the question of labour supply post-Brexit, saying: "I know how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses. Access to labour is very much an important part of our current discussions and we're committed to working with you to make sure you have the right people with the right skills. The Home Office is leading on this. I can't go into specific policy details but this has been looked at very closely since Brexit. It's our intention to meet the industry's needs. I am committed to that."
With UK food exports up eight per cent over the past year "our core-strength is our world-leading position in animal welfare, food safety and food traceability", said Leadsom. "Our high standards underpin the entire food chain and it's why the Union flag, and marques such as the Red Tractor and LEAF, instil such confidence in our products. The fundamentals of the sector are strong."
Asked by an Irish delegate whether the UK will lower standards to allow more imported commodities, she said: "Not at all. Our high standards are our USP and there is increasing demand around the world for high-quality food. That will help us."
She added: "I have a driving ambition to support greater success for the food and farming sector, but also to leave the environment in a better state. I don't see these as mutually exclusive. The focused use of pesticides helps the environment and saves farmers money. Most farmers do the right thing and there is an opportunity to reduce the burden of inspections."
Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for south-west England and a member of the European Parliament's Agricultural Committee, responded by saying: "Rather than using the opportunities offered by Brexit to encourage a move towards a diverse and ecologically sustainable farming system, this Government seem determined to dive headlong into encouraging damaging monocultures."
But in a conference fringe event, British Crop Production Council president Dr Colin Ruscoe said: "We can get real benefits from Brexit for UK food production by maximising science-based, proportionate decision-making, whilst achieving harmonisation with global authorities to facilitate trade within and outside the EU."
He said domestic risk assessment-based registration of crop-protection products "can underpin future UK regulation without prejudice to EU and global trade, and deserves full support from Defra, the Chemicals Regulation Directorate and from environmental organisations".