Gove: Gene-editing and lab-grown food will be part of the ag revolution

Environment Secretary Michael Gove used his speech at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference to reiterate his support for controversial food production methods such as lab-grown meat and milk and gene editing.

Speaking today, Gove told delegates he recognised the need for farmers to have the certainty to plan, invest and produce for the long-term.

He added that there could be a world of opportunity for British agriculture – but only if the industry embraces opportunities outside the EU and a technological revolution.

Other key points included a commitment to make the case for long-term investment in British farming ahead of the Spending Review.

Defra’s lead non-executive director, the food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, will lead the development of a new Food Strategy, visiting farms and food producers and working with people across the industry.

Technological revolution

Gove said he believed the deal would allow the UK to forge ahead with reforms which can put Britain in a “world-leading position” both in terms of food production and environmental stewardship.

Gove said the nation was “on the verge of another revolution in how we produce our food”.

The Environment Secretary also pledged investment in research, development and innovation.

“Accelerating technological advances such as the drive towards artificial intelligence, more sophisticated analysis of big data, machine learning and robotics will allow us to dramatically improve productivity on farmed land,” he said.

Gene-editing holds out the promise of dramatically accelerating the gains we have secured through selective breeding in the past.

“The ability to give Mother Nature a helping hand by driving the process of evolution at higher speed should allow us to develop plant varieties and crops which are more resistant to disease and pests and less reliant on chemical protection and chemical fertiliser. They will be higher-yielding and more environmentally sustainable.

“Vertical farming, with vegetables grown in temperature, moisture and nutrition-controlled indoor environments can also guarantee improvements in yield while at the same time limiting environmental externalities. And of course, vertical farms not only minimise land use but can, of course, be located close to the urban population centres they serve.

“We are also likely to see more and more of our need for protein met by aquaculture and cellular agriculture. Fish farming is an increasingly efficient way of using crops to generate nutritious proteins. And advances in synthetic biology may allow us to create traditional animal products – from gelatine and egg whites to milk and even meat – in labs.

“The potential for Britain to lead in this revolution is huge.”

Withdrawal agreement

In his speech, Gove also reiterated his support for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal which will see the UK leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy while avoiding the “turbulence” of a no-deal exit.

He said: “A week can be a long time in politics, but farming requires the patience and foresight to see beyond the immediate and scan the far horizon. It is a quintessentially long-term business, one that benefits from as much certainty as possible about the future.

“While I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the Government’s Spending Review later this year, I can continue to demonstrate the case for, and put in place, the policies that underpin, long-term investment in British agriculture and the rural economy.

It is also one of the reasons why I hope my colleagues in Parliament support the Prime Minister’s deal. It isn’t perfect – but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

“It not only gives us a 21-month transition period in which current access is completely unaffected, but it also allows us to maintain continuous tariff-free and quota-free access to EU markets for our exporters after that.

“It allows us largely to diverge from EU regulation after the transition, to leave the Common Agricultural Policy and end all mandatory payments to the EU.”