Keith Savage on threats to farmers, food and land from EU withdrawal

One of the consequences of leaving the European Union is the fact that the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies to British farmers. About 50% of farmers’ income comes from CAP payments and something is needed to replace it.

The CAP reinforced a post-war farming focus on producing food as ‘efficiently’ and cheaply as possible. This has made it impossible for farmers to live off the price paid for what they produce and, at the same time, led to great damage to the biodiversity of our landscape. As it stands, some sort of direct government investment in farming is inevitable – otherwise the industry will collapse.

The Agriculture Act 2020 became law on 11th November and proposes that payments be made to farmers for maintaining and caring for land in a responsible and sustainable way: support will be offered for delivering public goods. The transition from the present system of payments to a new Environmental Land Management scheme will take seven years altogether.

The details of the new payments are yet to be spelt out – the view from Defra is that it is better if they are co-designed with stakeholders rather than announced and imposed. For farmers trying to run a business this approach is not necessarily helpful. James Rebanks, a Lake District shepherd and author of English Pastoral, reported on UnHerd: “It is not a prospect relished by farmers. As one of my peers put it, ‘it is like shifting from a salary to a per hour contract, with your salary halved by the fourth year, and the hourly rate not revealed’. It looks like a great many of us will lose financial support.”

Farmers do produce food, but they are also stewards of the land and they manage millions of acres on behalf of all of us. It is best that this job is done well and it should be paid for. The Agriculture Act identifies a number of public benefits that farming can deliver. The post-war farming industry has damaged the health and biodiversity of the countryside in a host of ways. To begin to put this right farmers can be paid for work that will:

  • mitigate climate change;
  • protect nature and promote biodiversity;
  • lead to cleaner air and water;
  • improve the health and condition of the soil;
  • address animal welfare.

These proposals, in principle, have been largely welcomed. That doesn’t mean that this ‘landmark legislation’ is seen as being the saviour of farming or the countryside. Rebanks is scathing of what he perceives to be the government’s longer-term strategy: “The Secretary of State [George Eustice] was very clear that in seven years, British farmers are going to be competing with farmers from across the globe without the support of any subsidy for farming itself. It is about the oldest of neoliberal dreams — killing off state involvement and throwing open our country (and countryside) to free trade and deregulation.”

Critics also disputed the Government view that this legislation was not the place to make connections between food production and public health, and despite a petition signed by two million people there are no guarantees about food standards.

Farmers have usually been assumed to be Tories. If that is the case then their loyalty will be sorely tested. There is an opportunity for Labour to be a part of a new alliance when it comes to farming practices and the management of our land. Chartist will be reporting on these questions in future articles.

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