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The future of farming post-Brexit: a foreign country?

The future of farming post-Brexit: a foreign country?

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ runs the first line of LP Hartley’s novel The Go Between. The future may well be a foreign country for farming. It will certainly be very different if the radical change set out by Michael Gove, Defra Secretary of State, for a new British agricultural policy comes to fruition.  

As we leave the Common Agricultural Policy, we leave behind its major flaws. The new consultation phases out direct payments to farmers based on land area - which handed just 5% of the EU pot of money to farmers below average income - in favour of funding environmental improvements instead. It also fleshes out what the now familiar line of ‘public payments for public goods’ might mean: expect better air and water quality, healthier soils, more wildlife, lower greenhouse gas emissions, better access to the farmed countryside and greater protection for its ancient heritage. The planned approach post-2022 will be a new land management system that puts the environment first.

These ambitions are hugely welcome and broadly fit with what we, both individually and in partnership with Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside LINK, have called for. If this can be carried over into policy, then Michael Gove will have secured a transformation of public funding for farming and a real legacy besides.

Yet, even if the level of change proposed is bold, we need a degree of caution. This is a consultation, not legislation; the deal is not done yet. There are gaps, unknown details and scope to go further. This also sits within the unknowns of Brexit and the many challenges that brings to markets, trade and standards.  

So, what are our concerns?

Firstly, that funding is critical and needs to be maintained at least at current levels to stabilise the industry and begin to restore nature. The current spend on farming – around £3bn – is less than 0.5% of the Government’s annual expenditure. But if we want to see farmers, and farming, thrive, producing food profitably and sustainably, then perhaps we can go one step further. We need to see this funding not as a subsidy, but as a long-term investment – and good value for money - to accelerate farming in the race towards sustainability.

Secondly, we need to end the factional and fictional divide between the environment and farming. It cannot be either/or, it must be both. As the NFU says, the environment is a cornerstone of farming. If we let it disintegrate, the whole thing will collapse. So we should replace the false dichotomy of land sharing or land sparing, and replace it with sound environmental management across the whole farm. We need all farming to be with nature not against, to be biological more than chemical, and to regenerate the land and the countryside.

Thirdly, there is a need to go beyond these to rethink the food and farming system itself. Particularly we need to rethink the values that lie behind farming. What is its ultimate objective? To produce food?  Yes, in some sense, but surely we should say it is about feeding people well and paying people fairly to do so.  That means delivering good nutrition affordably and sustainably. The Defra paper recognises that: ‘the food we eat affects our health and well-being and our connectedness to the world around us’, (p12) but there it rests. Nutrition of people, as far as I can see, isn’t mentioned, though cheaper food is.

So, a final urge to Government is to reconsider the role of the market. It needs to explore ways to shape it so that growers and producers are properly, and fairly, rewarded for delivering the quality of produce, healthy countryside and standards of animal welfare that we so desperately need. No other industry is as intrinsically linked to the complexities and mysteries of the natural world, nor plays such a strategic role in the stability and health of the nation, so we need to get this right. To address this, we need to act as local and global citizens, not just consumers eyeing a bargain. This might mean spending a little bit more on our food, but would that be so bad? In truth, we spend less than any other EU nation, except Luxemburg, per head on our food. Our obsession with cheap food has not done our health, our farming or our environment many favours, so this could be a turning point.

No one doubts this is a long and difficult road to travel on but it is one to which the Government should commit, while there is strong leadership and an appetite for ambitious reform.  

As it stands, questions remain. Can most farms survive the pressures ahead? Will much of the industry have to as now keep chasing economies of scale to survive?  Will we be left with a diminished and largely corporate sector? How will the countryside look and function if we lose the number and diversity of farms so much a part of its character? Who will want to farm and how? This is our one, major opportunity to change the face of farming for the better – for the benefit of the people, environment and landscapes – so let’s do everything we can to get it right first time.   

No other industry is as intrinsically linked to the complexities and mysteries of the natural world

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