Farming after Brexit: reasons to be hopeful

Whatever one thinks of the decision to leave the European Union, in one respect at least, it presents a great opportunity.

For 30 years during and after the war, the purpose of UK agricultural policy was to increase food production. Since 1973, farming policy has largely been decided in Brussels. Now we have the chance to fashion our own farming and land management policy for the twenty-first century.

England’s countryside is in large measure the product of farming. Those who manage the land should be rewarded not only for the crops they sell, but also for ‘public goods’ such as flood management, carbon capture, promoting wildlife and, yes, maintaining and enriching beautiful landscapes.

But farmers will soon be competing for limited funds with steel workers, the NHS and other causes. Within the EU, with no choice but to follow EU farm support policies, there is little point debating whether farmers deserve public funding. It will be different once we are out. I doubt that many Treasury officials will want to carry on paying around £3 billion a year to UK farmers, and it is easy to imagine campaigns against the taxes of poor people in cities supporting rich farmers in the countryside.

So a case needs to be made for public funding, and the farming industry must demonstrate that it deserves such funding. As CPRE’s Graeme Willis will argue in a forthcoming report, New model farming: resilience through diversity, taxpayers will not want to pay for mega-dairies where the cows are never seen outside, or for farming practices that sterilise the countryside.

There is a deal to be had between land managers and the country as a whole: manage the land sensitively, reverse the loss of nature, treat animals (and your workers!) decently, and we will pay you for it; but if you want to farm simply for maximum profit and productivity, why should we treat you differently from any other business?

Judging from a recent news item in the Farmers Guardian, I am not sure the NFU understands this. NFU President Meurig Raymond is reported to want “a new domestic agricultural policy with growth, innovation, productivity and profitability at its heart”. This is a paraphrase. I hope the NFU’s position is more sophisticated than that.

Of course, there is plenty of scope to debate the farming system we want now that we have the chance to shape it. This goes beyond a decent livelihood for farmers and farm workers, promotion of wildlife, or action on climate change. What about public health? Should we aim to grow more fruit and vegetables here, rather than importing them from countries whose agriculture is being hit by climate change, particularly droughts? Should we stop trying to flog pig meat to China and milk to India and focus instead on increasing the resilience of our food system, for instance by localising supply chains?

There are many questions. But it is clear that if we seize the opportunity presented by Brexit, we can achieve major, positive change in the countryside. Slowing the rate of loss of farmland birds or slightly increasing biodiversity will not be enough to justify continued public funding. Rather, let’s design a policy that will, in the words of CPRE’s 2026 Vision, see wild flowers, birds, insects and mammals return to the countryside ‘in a rush of sights, sounds and smells’. Why not?

(This blog is based on a column that will appear in the August Countryman.)




3 Responses to “Farming after Brexit: reasons to be hopeful”

  1. 1 July 18, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    excellent blog, Shaun! best wishes Andrew

  2. 2 Andrew Carey July 18, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    This is probably Sean’s best ever blog post, and I’ve read quite a few. But we can go further than what Sean has said and use the word ‘we’ in a local not national sense. And we can achieve that by devolving farm subsidy policy and the budgetary equivalents as they currently stand to local authorities. Naturally in this situation the budget will compete with social care and council tax support, rather than with electricity subsidies or the NHS. But the outcome will be 300 or so local policies, some very flood protection orientated, some production and some leisure orientated, whatever is the local priority. Some probably won’t subsidise landowners at all. This should be an opportunity to let localism loose.

    • 3 sspiers July 19, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks, Andrew, an interesting suggestion. It would, of course, require the sort of ‘big bang localism’ advocated a few years ago by Simon Jenkins in a pamphlet for Civitas and Policy Exchange – i.e. a serious devolution of power to local authorities (and parishes) in the belief that more people would therefore vote in local elections, local authorities would be able to attract better calibre councillors etc.

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