A fair deal for our farmers

First published in Shooting Times, 31st August 2016

Post-Brexit politics looks set to be dominated by years of hard, tedious trade negotiations and arguments over what to do with over 40 years of EU-inspired legislation. The business of ‘getting back control’ may be pretty dull.

But one area of policy enthuses both sides in the referendum campaign: forging national agricultural policies to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Britain’s countryside has been shaped by farming, and farming since the Second World War has been largely shaped by public policy. UK farmers currently receive just over £3 billion a year in financial support, but both the overall sum and how it is spent are largely determined in Brussels. Now we must decide how, and how much, to support British farmers.

The question is important for farmers, of course, but it is also vital for rural communities and for anyone (including the shooting community) who wants beautiful landscapes rich in nature. How we fund farming is also significant for food security, diet and much else.

The vast bulk of CAP funding currently goes in the form of ‘area payments’. Those with the most land get the biggest returns. In return for this money, farmers have to do very little by way of improving their environmental performance.

So it is that UK agriculture has become increasingly industrialised and remote. We may delight in the countryside, but most people have lost their connection with farming. Some simply have no idea where their food comes from. Farms grow bigger (we have lost 34,000 farms in the last decade); soil quality declines; nature is pushed to the margins.

We can do better. CPRE is certainly not proposing an end to public funding. Farming is too important to be left at the mercy of market forces – important not only for the food it produces, but for wildlife, flood protection, carbon capture and, yes, safeguarding the matchless beauty of our countryside.

I hope debates on how to replace the CAP will not descend into arguments between green groups (‘we need more butterflies and bees’) and farming bodies (‘we need more food’). The truth is, we need nature and we need food, but we can get much better value for over £3 billion a year than we currently do. Farmers and environmentalists should be making common cause.

We now have a great chance to deliver major, positive change in the countryside. It is common to describe such moments as ‘once in a generation’, but we have had not had such an opportunity since before the Second World War. Let’s take it.

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