Ben Barnett: Doubts over Michael Gove's Defra future do not deter from environmental mission

Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned that time is running out to repair the damage to the planet that human beings have done, during a keynote speech at Kew Gardens on Tuesday. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned that time is running out to repair the damage to the planet that human beings have done, during a keynote speech at Kew Gardens on Tuesday. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.

Driffield Show took me ringside this week and, as it always seems to be the case at East Yorkshire’s big day out, it was a baking hot one.

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Everything seems better in the sunshine, doesn’t it? The pressures of everyday business visibly slink away as smiles and sun hats become the order of the day at a summer show.

I found show attendee Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, in good humour. The ‘Essex Peasant’, as Mr Smith calls himself on Twitter, remarked on the irony of having been sat, on a hot day earlier in the week, in a greenhouse at Kew Gardens listening to Michael Gove talk about climate change.

The union chief was at Driffield to meet farmers and a key message from my interview with him was that there must be consistent government funding in the years ahead to help farmers live up to both Environment Secretary Mr Gove’s environmental vision for the future, and the industry’s own 2040 net zero aspiration.

In the Secretary of State’s speech at Kew about the future of the environment, Mr Gove said “the first priority of farmers must always be food production”, saying it is “essential for our economic future and human flourishing”.

He said too, that farmers have a critical role to play in “our environmental transformation”, in sequestering carbon, improving water quality and supporting wildlife, adding that a future environmental land management scheme will reward “truly transformative change”.

In a week when Extinction Rebellion protesters targeted Leeds city centre, Mr Gove warned that “time is running out to make the difference we need, to repair the damage we as a species have done to the planet that we have plundered”, but is his own time in the Defra hotseat running out?

His speech – in which he listed his department’s environmental achievements and quoted the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand’s political advice that “it’s always later than you think” – seemed to hint so, but that may be reading too much into current affairs.

A politician who commands attention, Mr Gove is certainly keeping farming part of the conversation, and rightly so.

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