The UK’s new agriculture minister has promised a major scrapping of EU farming regulation – including key green measures – after it leaves the bloc.
Andrea Leadsom, who took the post after losing out to Theresa May in her bid to become Conservative Party leader and prime minister last summer, made the pledges in her first major speech in the role today (4 January).
They were immediately condemned as a return to “monoculture” farming by Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato, whilst NGOs criticised her concentration on red tape and avoidance of the subject of subsidies to UK farmers.
In her address, to the Oxford Farming Conference, Leadsom – seen as a hard-right winger during the aborted leadership contest in 2016 – promised a ‘Year Zero’ approach to regulation of the agricultural sector after Brexit.
She said, “In leaving the EU, we’ve been handed a once in a generation opportunity to take Britain forward; a real opportunity to thrive.
“We can design, from first principles, an agricultural system that works for us.”
However, there was little concrete detail on what that might involve, barring a bonfire of so-called red tape.
Her prime proposal was to end the “three-crop” rule on rotation, brought in by the EU in 2013.
That is intended to promote bio-diversity and end the reliance of large-scale farmers on single, ‘monoculture’, crops.
Leadsom dismissed it as simply “ridiculous, bureaucratic”.
Scott-Cato – one of three UK Green MEPs, and representing the agriculture-heavy South West England constituency – slammed the speech as short on detail, and essentially intended to shore up Leadsom’s Brexit credentials.
She said, “Leadsom speaks about the future for farming outside the European Union, but without any clarity or any plan to end uncertainty amongst farmers.
“As in so many areas, there are warm words for Tory supporters, this time about burning the regulations that protect the environment, but no detail at all.”
Leadsom went on to describe cutting agricultural regulations as “big potential wins” for farmers.
She told the conference of farmers, “Too much of your time and money has been wasted on keeping up and complying with EU red tape.
“I’m quite sure everyone here can still think of at least one piece of EU regulation you won’t miss.”
One she specified she was looking at – without further detail – was an end to “six-foot EU billboards littering the landscape”.
That is seemingly a requirement that farms in receipt of major EU subsidies must display the fact.
However, a major complaint in the UK over the past decade or so has farmers being paid to use their fields to house large advertising signs, or painted vehicles, within sight of major roads and motorways.
However, that does not appear to be related to EU regulations.
Leadsom also pledged there would be “no more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree”.
She concluded by saying “we will free our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food – whilst upholding our high standards for plant and animal health and welfare”.
That may raise a hollow laugh in Brussels, where UK agriculture is still remembered primarily for the ‘mad cow’ scare of the early 1990s, which saw John Major’s administration boycott meetings in protest at an EU import ban on British beef.
Nick Dearden, director of UK NGO Global Justice Now, said “Leadsom’s obsession with red tape will certainly appeal to Brexit populists, but it doesn’t offer much concrete support to the challenges that the UK farming sector is facing.
“Contrary to her speech … the real threat to farming in the UK is not ‘red tape’, but an unfair system of subsidies that massively benefits the richest land owners while leaving small-scale farmers high and dry.”
Leadsom was persuaded to drop out of the Conservative party leadership race last summer – when it was down to her versus May – after she told an interviewer her rival had no long term perspective for the future because she was childless.