Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sweet appointment at Defra

Caroline Spelman is the new secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As it so happens, I was with some Defra civil servants yesterday and they were intrigued about what the outcome might be.

Nick Herbert was the shadow spokesperson, but I was not greatly impressed by some of his comments: indeed, I even thought of writing to him and offering some advice! There was speculation that a Lib Dem might get the post and it has been suggested that one of the junior posts in the department will go to the Lib Dems.

Caroline Spelman has a background with big sugar. She worked for the British Sugar Corporation and held the sugar commodities post at NFU. She also worked for the International Federation of Beet Growers in Paris. I have had some dealings with big sugar myself and I know they are serious players.

Her appointment will no doubt be welcomed by the barley barons in East Anglia and the NFU. Farmers felt that Defra until Labour had become the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Activity. I do think that there are some issues on which they have legitimate grievances, for example the failures of the Rural Payments Agency and policy paralysis on bovine TB.

Nevertheless, I would appeal to the new ministerial team not to shift policy too far in a productionist direction and neglect environmental considerations. A good record on the environment is ultimately important for the relationship between the farmer and the consumer.

I know that many individual farmers undertake excellent initiatives on conservation and environmental protection. The typical farmer still has a real dedication to his calling and sees himself or herself as a 'trustee' of their farm. This is not always sufficiently acknowledged. But it does need a supportive policy framework to sustain it.

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