The post Brexit vote represents a golden opportunity to rethink the way that British agriculture is subsidised, in deed whether it should be subsidised at at all. The prevailing wind however seems to be business and handouts as usual.
At the moment there are a number of key sectors that the government, of whichever colour, seem to believe should be beneficiaries of the tax payers hard earner pounds. Failing banks, exploitative employers who’s low paid zero hour workers need income support payments to live, the arms industry with guaranteed orders, export insurance and diplomatic lobbying, and farmers.
Well actually not all farmers, the bigger the better. Of the £2.9 billion that UK farmers received in 2014-15 from the European Common Agricultural Policy around 80% goes to the largest 20% of farmers. According to the Brussels journalist group Journalismfund.eu the top recipients include such hoary hand sons of the land as Tate and Lyle, Nestle, British Sugar, and Kraft Foods not to mention some of the UK’s largest landowners such as the National Trust and the Duke of Westminster, even Iain Duncan Smith’s family pocket £150,000 a year of European tax payers money.
The irony is, that despite the reforms to the CAP to link payments to environmental policies, the main beneficiaries of the handouts are some of the worse eco offenders, particularly the mono-culture sugar beet companies. You want a drab countryside with thin top soil, streams full of NPK, pesticides and fungicides plant sugar beets.
A number of voices are calling for the Leave vote to herald a tooth and nail overhaul of the way that British agriculture is structured and supported. The National Trust, the UK’s largest farmer, has called for an end to price subsidies and the concentration of support to be focused on environmental and conservation work. The Campaign to Protect England’s Rural New Model Farming project sees a golden opportunity to support smaller farmers and break from the industrial agriculture model that the present European Common Agricultural Policy has helped create. The Countryside Landowners association, which represents, err, Landowners the main benefactors of the existing regime naturally disagrees, as does their political wing, the National Farmers Union.
On the progressive fringes the Land Workers Alliance have put together More Farmers, Better Food- A framework for British Agricultural policy one of the better documents I have read on the issue for sometime. It combines the issue of food security, the environment, rural services, workers rights and the role of smaller and organic farms in the food chain. However while worthy and certainly worth supporting they will be very marginal in the present climate. Apart from the Green Party there is nobody inclined to listen to them.
More mainstream a wide range of food, environmental, fisheries lobbying groups, campaigns and NGOs wrote an open letter to David Davis calling for a comprehensive environmentally centered policy for food and farming. Who knows change could happen, it will get a few articles in the Indie and the Guardian, but the noises so far from the May government are not encouraging.
Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor (Finance Minister for non English readers) has announced that the £6 billion the UK receives from the EU annually for farming, academic projects and regional development will be honored until 2020. Well he had to really, farming, academic projects and regional development all involve long term planning and delivery, and anyway with the clowns given responsibility for Brexit, Davis, Johnson and Fox it is rather wishful thinking that they can sort out the mess they have got the UK into in the next 10 years let alone three.
The problem of negotiating Brexit is one major problem for the agricultural sector, the second is that the UK does not have an agricultural policy, none, zilch, nadda. British agricultural policy has been set by the EU Council of Agricultural Ministers, so all we have is our position in relation to the policies devised by the European Commission under the orders from that Council. All the UK’s agricultural policy is is a critique of the EU policy which the UK shoulders equal responsibility with the other EU members for having created in the first place.
So someone somewhere had better come up with some policies rather sharpish. Andrea Leadsom, the new Minister for DEFRA and a former city banker knows all about subsidised industries, albeit under rather different circumstances. However the only “agricultural” policy opinion she has that is on public record is her support for fox hunting, hardly an encouraging start. So let’s hope she can get up to speed fast. There are however a few issues she may need to sort out, under the Cameron regime DEFRA was really hollowed our, it’s budgets slashed and staff reassigned. The agricultural staff left at DEFRA have a sort of revolving door policy with the industry lobby the National Farmers union, which is more a business association than a union as such.
With the new government’s agricultural policies unclear, not least it would appear unknown to those responsible for them the best indication is what the NFU are saying as they will have the largest voice in forming any policy.
Early indications are that inertia will be the guiding motivation. In the NFU’s response to the rather modest proposals put forward by the Campaign to Protect of Rural Enland’s New Model Report was a highly defensive “Our members are doing a good job- business as usual”.
In response to Brexit the NFU has launched a three month consultation exercise with their membership, the key note document can only be read by members but a quick presentation can be viewed here. The key NFU argument is food security, i.e. producing as much of the country’s food in country so in the event of catastrophic events like war the UK does not starve. It is the old condom argument so effectively used for Trident, better to have one and not use it than need one and not have it.
In someways food security and local sourcing loved by us organic food producers and environmentalists coincide, both argue for supporting local production and both are resistant to long supply chains. However food security has little to be with environmental issues. An apple can be grown with one of the few varieties now taken by supermarkets, flown to a fruit polishing plant in South Africa, returned to the UK and sold in a Tescos near you and still be British while for an environmentalist it has a huge carbon footprint and the buying policies of the supermarkets are destroying biodiversity and food choice. Equally, local if you live in Cornwall could well be Brittany not the Scottish highlands.
But food security for the NFU means the covering to justify the present system, Brexit gives the NFU the chance to lobby for further protectionism under the guise of food safety, further subsidies for the replacement for imports. There is nought as nationalist as a farmer looking for a hand out, unless of course that money is coming from Brussels.
Where it is going to get quite interesting is on casual agricultural labour, seasonal labour is a crucial part of many farms. How will the NFU deal with the issue may raise a wry smile.