Thérèse Coffey is the new minister of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in Rishi Sunak’s government.
Coffey has a PhD in chemistry and has been an MP in the rural constituency of Suffolk Coastal since 2010. She has previously served at Defra from 2016 to 2019, before moving to the Department for Work and Pensions with a brief but controversial spell as health secretary under Liz Truss.
Coffey’s voting record as MP suggests she might not be as progressive as some hope, despite considerable experience in food and farming.
Coffey has consistently voted against measures preventing climate change and human, equality and gay rights, and has been in favour of the privatisation of state-owned woodlands.
Her appointment has been met with widespread condemnation by environmentalists on social media.
Journalist and environmentalist, George Monbiot said on Twitter: “Coffey as environment secretary. Goodbye to all we hold dear.”
Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas said: “Getting rid of Thérèse Coffey as Health Secretary was essential. She was dangerous with her shocking and reckless comments on antibiotics, and her total inability to do the job. But making her Environment Secretary? No!”
Scientist David Coombe nominated Coffey for the ‘most inappropriate tweet of the year’ when she posted a picture of the ‘amazing’ Round-Up. This contains the controversial herbicide glyphosate, owned by Monsanto, that has been sued for causing cancer.
But other farming commentators highlight her previous experience in Defra and her understanding of farming matters, as a politician who knows her brief, at least compared to her growth-focused predecessor Ranil Jayawardena.
Commenting on the news, a Defra insider told Wicked Leeks that: “We haven’t had a positive steer beyond ‘growth’ since the summer.”
They added: “[There is] a lot of judgement of these people [ministers] on past actions and their personalities but [there is] literally no change in the steer of our work.
“I can’t see much evidence of anything changing on the ground. I feel like that comes out on a longer timeframe,” the Defra source said.
Externally, Coffey has a job on her hands regaining the trust of farmers and environmental organisations after the outrage at rumours that Jayawardena had called a U‐turn on ELMs, the new nature‐friendly farming subsidies.
But previous speeches in the House of Commons and her commitment to the Conservative Environment Pledge suggest knowledge and values grounded in nature and farming.
She warned parliament about water storage and the lack of reservoirs as far back as 2011, a topical issue after drought devastated crops this year and is expected to become more common with climate change.
Coffey has also raised issues of balancing food production with nature in the House of Commons, highlighted by the Farmers Guardian: “Elements of food security matter, but so does the environment. We have to respect the environment, sustaining it for our future. Our own farmers know that better than anybody else; they do not want to put themselves out of business overnight.”