Profile: George Eustice, negotiating agriculture’s future between farmers, free traders, protectionionists and rewilders

7 Apr

George Eustice recently expressed the hope that a decade from now, the rest of the world will come to Britain to see how to run a successful, independent farm policy.

As Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he is in charge of the seven-year transition, begun at the end of 2020, from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to new British policies for agriculture and the environment.

The invasion of Ukraine has prompted renewed fears about security of supply, and whether British farmers are now being paid to concentrate too much on rewilding and too little on food production.

Rewilding is not just fashionable, promoted by such figures as Isabella Tree and the Goldsmith brothers. It is official Government policy, as Eustice recently outlined at the Oxford Farming Conference:

“If we are to deliver the targets we’ve set ourselves for woodland creation in England – around 10,000 hectares of trees per year – and if we’re to deliver our objective of getting 300,000 hectares of land where habitat is restored, there is inevitably going to be a degree of land use change. I know that that causes some people some concern. But you have to look at the numbers we’re looking at in the overall context. Of the fact that we have some 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, and so we are only looking at change taking place on a relatively small area of that land.”

The Government will pay subsidies in order to persuade landowners to enable it to reach its environmental targets. Eustice seeks with his usual tact to persuade sceptics that this is not just a way to hand out public money to the rich so they can pursue frivolous and faddish hobbies for which they should be happy to pay out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has encouraged some Brexiteers to proclaim the virtues of free trade, as a way of cutting food prices, and to fulminate against agricultural protectionism.

Eustice himself is not much given to fulminating. He prefers to deliver careful, detailed speeches, stronger on pragmatism than on ideology, so in that respect profoundly conservative.

His recent addresses to the CLA  Conference and to the Conservative Spring Forum offer further examples of his style.

At the latter event, which occurred three weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised worries about food supplies, he was at pains to deliver the reassuring message that “domestic food production gives us national resilience”.

He pointed out that while in the late 19th century Britain produced only 30 per cent of food consumed here, the figure now, for foods that can be produced in this country, is over 75 per cent:

“We are 86 per cent self sufficient in beef, fully self sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes. Sectors like soft fruit have seen a trend towards greater self sufficiency in recent years with an extended UK season displacing imports.”

And he denied that there was any contradiction between food production and environmental protection: these “must go hand in hand” and “are two sides of the same coin”.

As for the free trade argument, Eustice has at least advocated opening new markets to British produce, looking at the topic from the point of view of farmers rather than consumers:

“For the livestock sector, maximising value can depend on carcass balance and on being able to get access to a higher price for some cuts in overseas markets. There are opportunities for British agriculture in many Asian markets including Japan and India; opportunities for the Dairy industry in Canada and the US; and opportunities for the sheep sector in both the US and the Middle East. We have been working with the AHDB [the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] on opening access to these markets…”

In 2017 Policy Exchange brought out a report, Farming Tomorrow, which contended that this was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve cheaper food for consumers, by abolishing tariffs on food imports while scrapping agricultural subsidies, with any remaining subsidies instead devoted to protecting the environment.

One of the authors of that report, Warwick Lightfoot, who has advised three Chancellors of the Exchequer but speaks here in a personal capacity, told ConHome that while Michael Gove, Environment Secretary from 2017-19, had indeed switched subsidies in that way, this could be a means of “keeping protection via the back door”.

When ConHome pointed out that Eustice has a farming background, and has spoken with approval of his ruggedly independent forebears who refused to do what the man from the Ministry of Agriculture told them, Lightfoot retorted: “You’ve got to think about people who’ve got an eating background.”

He remarked that he does his shopping in Lidl and would like to be able to buy cheap meat from abroad. The Government must put consumers’ interests first, and not accept propaganda from the National Farmers’ Union about the dangers of, for example, chlorinated chicken from America:

“I’ve just spent a month in America. Do you think I was taking a risk when I had a chicken caesar salad?”

Daniel Hannan, ConHome columnist, reckons “there is a massive problem with DEFRA”, which is “prone to capture from every passing Green lobby group”.

Eustice plays the deadest of dead bats to attacks on either himself or DEFRA. He talks in a lucid, ungimmicky, commonsensical way, and was presumably appointed partly in order to avoid picking fights. His ministerial career has been spent entirely in his present department, where he started as Parliamentary Undersecretary in 2013 and became Secretary of State in February 2020.

His family have farmed for six generations near Camborne, in Cornwall, and as he told the CLA:

“Advice was passed down the generations. My great grandfather, George Henry Eustice, had an outlook forged during the difficult inter-war years. It led him to embrace an ethos very much rooted in self-reliance. He used to say, ‘When the man from the Ministry tells you he is going to pay you to produce something, it’s time to get out!'”

As Eustice went on to remark, now that he himself is “the man from the Ministry, the scepticism of my forefathers does weigh on me”. He is not, by either upbringing or instinct, a man who favours central control.

He instead believes in the ability of farmers, through hard work and attention to detail, and often in defiance of what the state is telling them, to work out what is best.

This Cornish sense of self-reliance is a cardinal point. Eustice was born in 1971, educated at Truro School, studied horticulture at Cornwall College and ran for Cornwall’s cross country team.

For nine years he worked in the family business, a fruit farm which today has a restaurant, a farm shop, a herd of South Devon cattle and the country’s oldest herd of a rare breed of pig, the British Lop, which is not as well known as it might be because it does not look strikingly old-fashioned.

In the European elections of 1999, Eustice stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate in South West England. He afterwards got a job working for the campaign set up by Business for Sterling to stop Britain joining the Euro.

When ConHome asked one of his colleagues in this campaign about him she replied: “Can’t really remember. Sorry. Strawberry farmer.”

Eustice served from 2003 as Head of Press to two Conservative leaders, Michael Howard and David Cameron. Day after day, he toured the Commons press gallery, unfazed by the tough questions put to him, but unimpressed by some of Fleet Street’s behaviour – he was to back Lord Leveson’s proposals.

In 2010 he stood as the Conservative candidate for his local seat, Camborne and Redruth, and won it, after a recount, by 66 votes from Julia Goldsworthy, who had been, on different boundaries, the Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

When the European Referendum came, Eustice was, as might be expected, a Leaver. But even here, he was studiously moderate in tone: he recommended the Norway route to leaving the EU.

In February 2019 he resigned from his post as Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having lost faith in Theresa May’s negotiating strategy, and in July of that year he was reappointed to his old post by Boris Johnson.

Eustice has laboured mightily to draw up the legislation needed to replace European governance of farming and fisheries. He was regarded as a safe pair of hands during the pandemic, during which the following dialogue took place between him and Nick Ferrari on LBC:

 Ferrari: “You can only serve alcohol with a substantial meal…what constitutes a substantial meal? Scotch egg?”

Eustice: “Um, I think this is a term that is understood very much by the restaurant trade.”

Ferrari: “Would a Scotch egg count as a substantial meal?”

Eustice: “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.”

A much mocked ruling, but even here, Eustice himself was not remembered. He is now in charge of regulating an industry of great importance:

“There is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency in the UK – except Westminster. The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined and more evenly dispersed across our country.”

He does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, when farmers were told what to do. His inclination is not to order either rewilding or maximum food production.

Eustice contends that environmental measures, for example to protect the health of the soil, are also, in the long term, good for productivity, and make farming more resilient.

He recently warned that rises in the price of wheat and of energy are bound to lead to rises in the price of other foodstuffs. What he did not say is that higher prices will be good for farmers, with the most resourceful and enterprising of them doing best.

Higher prices are of no concern to the prosperous middle-class consumer who frequents farmers’ markets, buying delicious but amazingly expensive local produce. Higher prices will, on the other hand, be a body blow to the poor, who will soon notice whose side the Government is on.

In his maiden speech in the Commons, Eustice quoted some words from a letter written by Richard Trevithick, the famous inventor from Cornwall, who did not become rich from the steam engines he designed – rather the reverse – but who had no regrets:

“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”

Eustice observed that the Government could not have all the answers: when one wants to attempt “what the world calls impossibilities”, brilliant individuals like Trevithick are indispensable.