DEFRA oversees our food, air and water: will Brexit turn it into a corporate stooge?

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – better-known in Whitehall as ‘DEFRA’ – may not be a departmental name that rolls regularly off the tip of the tongue – though its influence on our daily lives is far-reaching. 

It has oversight over the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink. 

Since Brexit, one would have thought that the DEFRA would have great new freedoms in its policy agenda, and a blank canvas to work from. The National Food Strategy would seem to suggest this, involving a review of the entire UK food system in order to provide a blueprint for how DEFRA and the government can improve it.

However, this is increasingly in doubt in the face of ever-growing outsider influences: with the environment as well as food and farming increasingly entering mainstream British political debate through issues such as trade deals, Brexit, and the climate crisis, DEFRA has a new importance in politics. Such an importance does though open it up to challenges, especially those outside of its ministerial leadership, who seek to influence and even control its agenda.

The problem of outsider influence taking control of DEFRA’s policy agenda is not a fear created by the paranoid but one that has its roots in the past. 

Before Britain joined the EEC in 1974, farming policy in Britain was heavily corporatist. Cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (‘MAFF’) and the National Farmers’ Union (‘NFU’) was very close: MAFF needed the NFU in order to get policies and legislation followed through by farmers, while the NFU needed MAFF to protect farming through stable prices and subsidies for high production. Nevertheless, this relationship was somewhat unequal, with many saying that MAFF was simply the political voice and a Cabinet representative of the NFU. 

Under the EU, the relationship between farmers and the UK government became more distant: the Common Agricultural Policy (‘CAP’) guaranteed farmers funding, but alongside wider European legislation it reduced the need for the UK government to involve itself in agricultural policy at large. 

This distance was problematic, and is certainly not a solution to preventing outsider influence:  a little-known fact is how farmers were among the many people and industries that experienced a bitter relationship with Margaret Thatcher and her government. The bitterness reached such a point that the normally Conservative-leaning NFU voted for a motion of no-confidence in the government in 1987, and demanded that Michael Jopling, the then-Secretary of State for Agriculture, resigned.  

Tony Blair’s New Labour government also had its struggles with farmers, notably during the 2001 Foot-and-Mouth Crisis. The crisis tested MAFF’s ability to operate within the perimeters of EU directives and its limited remaining relationship with farmers. For MAFF, the crisis was a failure, with over six million sheep and cattle slaughtered, and trust in the government from rural and farming communities obliterated: when Blair visited Cumbria, several farmers shouted that ‘the only good Blair [was] a dead one.’ 

DEFRA rose as a ‘super-ministry’ from the burning pyres of the Foot-and-Mouth Crisis. It sought to move beyond MAFF’s failure, and widen the integration of environmental policy with food and farming, but it remained primarily an agency of Brussels and its directives. 

Then – 15 years on – Brexit happened, throwing DEFRA a new opportunity to regain power and a renewed form of importance. 

A Cabinet Office assessment in 2016 rated DEFRA as the Whitehall department that faced the greatest impact from Brexit, both in its long-term policymaking and day-to-day operations. Such a predicament was illustrated by the fact that 80% of the UK’s environmental laws originated from the EU

It was with this mammoth task and the entrance of Michael Gove as Secretary of State, that a transformation was to begin. Whatever one may think of Gove politically, one may still appreciate the true reinvigoration that he brought to DEFRA which – with it being small and benign under the EU and a ‘backwater in government’ – was not easy; according to Gove’s former Principal Private Secretary from his days as Education secretary, Pamela Dow, ‘the fast-streamers would not normally have been excited to work at Defra, whereas [under Gove] people really [were], because it’s nice to see the policy you’re working on being talked about.’ 

Gove owed this to the Department, since he had been a leading advocate for Brexit – the very Brexit that was leading to a heavy workload for the department, and it took 18 months from late-2016, for the DEFRA to restructure in order to prioritise a no-deal Brexit and ‘turn projects into detailed plans with clear milestones’. This also saw DEFRA’s staffing grow by over 65%, and it become a more assertive department in Whitehall: crucial for its future in leading UK food, farming and environmental policy.

But outside influences have also started mobilising after Brexit, seeing an opportunity to take control of DEFRA’s new policy agenda. 

The NFU was quick after Brexit to demand that the CAP be replaced by new subsidies, and has since made low murmurs on the issue of pesticide and GMO-use, which under the EU was heavily regulated. Bayer and the NFU are already taking the EU to court over the ban on Neonicotinoid pesticides, which the EU banned due to the danger they pose to bees and other wildlife; the power of Bayer and other agri-chemical corporations to lobby DEFRA to back-pedal on numerous EU restrictions on pesticides and GMOs has increased. Already, the UK had through influence from the NFU and the $1.9m EU-wide lobbying campaign by Bayer, been a strong advocate in 2017 for the EU to renew the licence for glyphosate-use in agriculture. 

Furthermore, the UK’s ability to regulate pesticides and other chemicals looks worryingly curtailed: the Health and Safety Executive – with a new team of just 35-40 staff members, a £13m budget and oversight from DEFRA – has to regulate thousands of chemicals which, under the EU, were regulated by the European Chemicals Agency staffed by over 500 members and an annual budget of €100m . 

The Coronavirus pandemic has also shown a worrying precedent for how the current Conservative government seeks to utilise DEFRA in managing the UK’s food system. As Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University is quoted as saying, the government’s approach towards the food system during the pandemic was ‘leave it to Tesco’. This was highlighted in how Chris Tyas, a former executive at Nestle, was brought in to head the Food Resilience Industry Forum at DEFRA.

The influence of free-trade ideologists, and a ‘leave it to Tesco’ mentality in UK food and farming policy, is a growing issue under the current government. A prominent trade lawyer and member of the pro-free trade Institute for Economic Affairs think-tank, Shanker Singham, wrote a report in June 2019 entitled Fertile Ground, which laid out a largely free-trade approach for advise the government on the suitability of trade-deals for UK food standards. 

the report sought to allay fears of a UK-US Free-Trade Agreement, arguing that ‘consumers will not be forced’ to buy American products and that headline issues such as chlorinated-chicken and hormone-induced beef were non-issues, since they are safe for consumption. It reduced these concerns around food to only emphasise the safety of such products, with any environmental or animal welfare problems responded to through comparisons between intensive farming in the EU and the US. 

This debate over trade deals has continued to question DEFRA’s control of our food and farming systems. 

The NFU and environmentalists have rightly campaigned for UK food standards and animal welfare rights to be protected from being undermined by new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Within the Tory Party and the government itself, divisions over trade policy have been characterised by some as a battle between defended food standards in the face of arguments for lowering them to secure FTAs. 

Whether this debate over the threat of trade deals to food standards and animal welfare rights is over, is still disputed: there is no guarantee that the Trade and Agriculture Commission will protect food standards and healthy improvements in the UK food system, with the chairman calling concerns with trade-deals ‘alarmist’, and the Commission itself including free-trade ideologists such as Shanker Singham and Sir Lockwood Smith. This is a source of growing pressure on DEFRA, with no real assurances that any environmental improvements it pushes for within UK farming – such as the Environmental Land-Management Scheme – will not then be undermined by the economics of trade deals. 

The influence of trade deals on DEFRA’s policies is further heightened by the United States’ approach to agreeing a trade agreement with the UK.

Their Special Representative for Trade, Robert Lighthizer, has expressed his irritation with EU rules on pesticides and food standards, stating ‘the European Union has raised this practice of using [food] standards really as protectionism’ and for those who refuse to lower their food standards to allow American products ‘access’, the ‘[USA won’t] give them a trade agreement.’ 

Eighty-five pesticides used in the USA are currently banned under EU and UK law. A trade deal that overrides UK standards could see food with banned pesticidal residues sold on UK supermarket shelves and the undercutting of the price of food produced in the UK. This would severely limit the incentives for UK farms with DEFRA’s support, to reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact, with cheaper food imports being produced through heavier impacts. 

Against this background, the so-called ‘European bureaucracy’ cannot simply be replaced in the UK by an agricultural establishment consisting of ‘Big Ag’, the agri-chemical industry, the NFU and free-trade ideologists, nor by the corporate agenda of potential trade deals such as with the USA. 

Future UK food and agricultural policy must be driven by an independent, evidence-based, and holistic agenda, which brings together a variety of groups including conservationists, consumers, and a wide range of farmers. DEFRA must be at the centre of this agenda and its implementation, working with farmers to build better food systems. 

There is hope shown in the independence and vision of the National Food Strategy. Our food system cannot afford for DEFRA to either return to the corporatism seen between MAFF and the NFU in the 1970s, nor be pushed around by various other commercial and ideological interests. DEFRA can be the real face of change in our food and farming systems – but only if it stands up for itself and the government truly defends its integrity. 

George Richmond grew up on a Gloucestershire dairy farm, and is currently a History undergraduate at Cambridge University; he is a strong supporter of regenerative agriculture