To be addressed by a Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was a first for farmers at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week. And Michael Gove did play to the gallery: the future for food in Britain will lie in high quality, excellent animal welfare standards and provenance, he proclaimed. And Britain will be ‘the global pace setter when it comes to the environment’. Farmers applauded and hope that Mr Gove will be able to deliver. But if anything it will be the Brexit he so ardently campaigned for that may well scupper his plan for a bright environmentally friendly British food future.

The organisers of the ORFC took Brexit very seriously and set up no less than seven talks and workshops to clarify where farmers stand at present, what the post-Brexit future might look like and which issues might pose the biggest problems. Not surprisingly things are extremely complicated, there are more question marks than answers and everything hinges on the elephant(s) in the room. The elephant that could squash Mr Gove’s green vision for farmers and food in an instant is the trade deal issue: if Trade Secretary Liam Fox were to secure a bilateral trade deal with the US, the UK would have to accept US production standards, from growth hormones in milk and cattle to chlorine washed chickens and GMOs – the US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has made that abundantly clear. The US considers high environmental and food quality standards like the ones Mr Gove is proposing to be trade barriers, a US-UK trade deal would ring in a race to the bottom. What would that mean for food and farming, farmers at the ORFC wanted to know? Parliament would have to sign off on any trade deal, Michael Gove assured his audience, and if the British public cared about their food, MPs would vote such a deal down. That is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of the minister, explained Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now in a workshop on trade deals: At present parliament has no right to shape, guide or stop a trade deal negotiated by the UK government, says Dearden.

Why that is the case has to do with another elephant in the room – and here it unfortunately gets quite technical: the EU withdrawal bill will copy existing EU legislation into UK law where it then can be amended through parliament. But what the UK will not have after Brexit are the EU-equivalent institutions, bodies, and organisations that set standards, control and enforce them. Nor will Britain be bound by the guiding principles enshrined in EU treaties that underpin EU law. This post Brexit structural hole matters greatly and plays out across a lot of issues, including trade deals:

Within the EU negotiating trade deals with other countries involves the Council, the Commission and the European parliament but not the parliaments of member states – which is why at present Westminster wouldn’t have a say in any future trade deal. It would take a new law that gives a post Brexit parliament this power and whether it will be written or not is yet unclear.

Over the two days at the ORFC it became clear just how complicated, far-reaching and vital these rather wonkish sounding questions are. Who will set standards for water and air quality, food hygiene and food safety? Who will regulate pesticides and antibiotic use? Who will decide on bio-technology from GMOs to CRISPR, approve new seed varieties or animal welfare standards? Even if there are existing laws standards, they will probably have to be developed, amended, controlled – and adherence has to be enforced. Throughout the sessions it became very clear that there are a lot of interest groups hoping to influence the process but that there is no clear path how the necessary bodies will be set up and where the money to run them will come from. ‘We may have to buy in expertise from the EU’, seemed to be the one practical and readily available solution…

And as if this wasn’t complicated enough – the third elephant in the room is called devolution. If Brexit means Westminster taking back control – what does that mean for the devolved power of agricultural policies? What if the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly don’t agree? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have clearly said they want to remain GMO free. What would it mean for a UK internal market if the UK entered into a trade agreement with the US that allowed GMOs?

Elephant number four is called labour force and wages. ‘A hard Brexit would mean the long slow decline of British farming’, predicted Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University. It would mean cheap food imports; without cheap migrant labour from European countries British farmers could only compete though even more self exploitation. If farming is to have a future, farming jobs need to be knowledge based and decently paid, agriculture, says Tim Lang, depends on skills – from machinery maintenance to pruning fruit trees.

This herd of elephants in the room almost crowded out Michael Gove’s announcement that farmers in future should be paid for delivering ‘public goods’. But few people at the ORFC held out much hope that after Brexit Michael Gove would have any money left to give to anyone for anything.

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel

The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here