The Brexit negotiations have reached a point where the vague promises of the Leave campaign have met reality, not least on the Irish border question. But Defra minister Michael Gove still appears to believe he can “have his cake and eat it” with high UK production standards and deregulation to allow more competitive food imports.
A hard Brexiteer, he has recently told the dairy industry to expect no migrant labour after the UK leaves Europe. He is also reported, alongside on/off friend Boris Johnson, to have written to Theresa May pressing for more deregulation and free trade with the rest of the world.
Despite this, his recent speeches have painted a pastoral vision of high UK environmental standards and animal welfare, unsupported by primary production subsidy. Mr Gove appears to believe that the UK can recoup its higher production costs by marketing these higher standards around the world under a Made in Britain label.
While this may help highly branded products such as malt whiskies and niche sectors such as organic cheese, provenance will be much less help to the commodity markets.
A former Conservative agriculture minister, John Gummer, introduced the UK’s unilateral ban on sow stalls. It came into effect in 1999, 14 years ahead of similar action in the EU. At the time, Mr Gummer assured pig producers that the British consumer would support higher welfare produce. The reality, of course, is that consumers buy on price. The UK sow herd has more than halved since the stalls ban leading to higher volumes of pigmeat imports, much of it produced in conditions illegal in the UK.
Many believe the emphasis on environment and animal welfare is a Conservative strategy to reconnect with the younger voters that deserted the party in the last General Election. It will be interesting to see how much traction higher UK food production standards have in mainstream global markets outside the EU, and how Mr Gove balances his green credentials with his Brexiteer desire for deregulation.