“Food is at the heart of every farming business and farming is the backbone of the rural economy. Our ambition at Defra to lead the world in our thinking about food depends on our ability in the first place to maintain a healthy farming sector and overall a robust rural economy.”

Those were the words of secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, in his opening speech at the Oxford Farming Conference. Following much controversy over the UK Agri Bill on its failure to place food production at the centre of its proposals - it was notable that Mr Gove began his Defra offering by stating 'Food first,' before going on to praise the abundance and quality of food that UK farmers produce.

“British citizens have a wider choice of high-quality food than ever before and the cost of food for the consumer has fallen significantly in recent decades,” he said. “We have safe, nutritious, affordable food in abundance in this country because of our farmers - their hard work, enterprise and commitment. But we cannot take this bounty for granted. And nor can we ignore the looming problems that we face,” he stressed.

Mr Gove discussed food security and the importance of future farming practices which will ensure healthy domestic food production: “Food security in the future should mean for example, returning soils to robust health, and improving their organic content. It should also mean keeping pollinator numbers healthy and improving animal welfare and husbandry to minimise health problems and disease risk,” he continued.

"And it also means guarding against those looming changes we can foresee - taking steps to minimise flood risk, adapt to climate change and safeguard biodiversity so we have a rich bank of natural capital on which to draw for the future.”

Referring to the impact climate change is having, he made it clear that the UK will need to step up in its role as a global food producer, but not at the risk of lowering current standards of production: “If we are to maintain our own resilience and reputation for quality, that means we must maintain our own high environmental and animal welfare standards, and we must not barter them away in pursuit of a necessarily short-term trade-off.

Mr Gove stood by his view that leaving the EU is positive for the UK: “I believe strongly that our departure allows us to rejuvenate our democracy, make power more accountable, escape from the bureaucratic straitjacket of the CAP and develop a more vibrant farming sector with access to technologies the EU is turning its back on,” he explained.

Despite recognising the resilient and adaptable nature of the farming industry, he made it clear that a no-deal Brexit would have a crushing impact on the future of UK agriculture. “The turbulence which would be generated by our departure without a deal would be considerable. It would hit those who are our smaller farmers and smaller food businesses. A no-deal Brexit means we would face overall tariff rates of around 11% on agricultural products. But some sectors would be much more severely affected.

According to the AHDB’s Horizon report, tariffs on sheep and beef would be above 40% in the event of a no-deal - worrying statistics given 90% of our trade in those products goes to the EU and Mr Gove declared his support for the Prime Minister’s deal, urging his colleagues in parliament to do the same.

“It isn’t perfect – but we should never make 'perfect' the enemy of the good. It not only gives us a 21-month transition period in which current access is completely unaffected, it also allows us to maintain continuous tariff-free and quota-free access to EU markets for our exporters after that, allows us to diverge from EU regulation in many areas after the transition; means that we will leave the Common Agricultural Policy and it also ends all mandatory payments to the EU,” he explained.

On leaving the EU and the CAP, Mr Gove said he was determined to reward farmers for the 'public goods' they generate and explained that Defra’s proposed Environmental Land Management contracts would provide farmers and other land managers with a pipeline of income to supplement the money they make from food production, forestry and other business activities.

“ELMs should be seen as an additional crop, with the government, rather than a commercial player, entering into a contract with farmers to ensure we increase the provision of environmental services, many of which will also enhance farm productivity,” he stated. “Equally, farmers could be rewarded for enhancing the natural capital of which they are stewards - protecting ancient woodland, bringing woodland under active management or restoring peat bogs. These all generate public goods by adding to our carbon storage, boosting air quality, tackling global warming, and also improving water quality,” he concluded.