Some initial thoughts on a post-CAP farm subsidy system

Well that was a bit of a shock. In the absence of exit polls I was looking at what the betting markets were doing – all the money seemed to be piling in on shortening odds for Remain. The Bookies will have done well out of yesterday’s result.

For the moment, I will focus on farm subsidies as this is a huge change – the biggest change as far as nature in Britain is concerned. I have written previously on a number of occasions critiquing the sort of things that the Leave side have been saying, about what a post-Brexit farm subsidy system would look like. Now we will have the chance to find out whether anything they claimed will actually happen.

What would a farm subsidy system look like that would really help nature? Firstly, the idea that landowners receive a subsidy just for owning farm land (artfully attacked by George Monbiot yesterday) must go.

Payments should only be made where direct public benefits are created. Food production per se is not a public benefit, at the farm level. This is simply because the farmer can sell the food to whoever they wish, and that means it may end up in China, not here. Public benefits would include preventative measures such as protecting high value nature where it still occurs on farmland (those precious few places), reducing or eliminating the pollution of rivers and the sea by farm effluent and pesticides, conserving soils (and their carbon) improving animal welfare etc; and positive measures such as creating new wildlife habitats (including rewilding), encouraging people to come to farms to experience nature etc.

Regulation is absolutely essential to underpin the payments system. Growing crops like Maize near to rivers should just be banned. I have previously suggested a “polluter pays” approach for environmentally damaging crops, so farmers would have to pay extra if they wanted to grow them, this money being used to directly ameliorate the impacts they have on the environment. I think it would be worth looking at. Farmers hated the CAP-drive cross compliance process, and yet it was mostly toothless. But it’s inevitable that there will need to be a system to check that any money spent on farm subsidies  is spent on public benefits, so this is an opportunity to design one that is not onerous on farmers, and also works as far as checking compliance goes.

The system needs to recognise that landscape features on farms are already delivering public benefit and deserve support, as opposed to the crazy system that the EC had adopted of mapping out every single tiny “ineligible feature”, forcing farmers to destroy scrub, hedgerows and ponds, in order to claim subsidy. I’d turn the whole thing on its head and start by recognising that farmers who have lots of landscape features receive a payment for maintaining them.

There’s a great danger that production subsidies will return, particularly headage payments in the uplands. This would be a disaster and all calls must be resisted.Without CAP subsidies many upland farms will be simply uneconomic. If sheep farmers left the hills, what would happen? The ensuing vacuum might draw in large scale afforestation, for example. This would be good if it was a mix of trees which benefitted nature, but obviously not if it was just serried rank of conifers. So lobbying is needed to make sure it’s the former rather than the latter. And we are not living in the 1950s, the Forestry Commission is a very different beast and I think it highly unlikely that they would support a return to mass conifer afforestation of the hills.

There will also be calls for “payments for ecosystem services”, using a natural capital approach, where every item is costed on some spurious basis – £25 for bee habitat, £50 to store floodwater. This should also be resisted. Farmers do deserve public support where they deliver public benefit, but area payments are the best and simplest approach to providing that support. The most public benefit (eg if land is recognised as having high value for nature – as an SSSI) should be paid the highest amount.

What about agri-environment schemes? Bearing in mind it’s inevitable that there will be much less money available for farm support, any funding directed to agri-environment schemes will need to be spent very carefully. Obviously funding is needed to support the management of high nature value sites like SSSIs and other valuable sites, many of which need restoration. Creating new habitat should be supported to:

  • Expanding an existing small area with high value for nature, for example to increase the chances of a threatened species surviving, or to make management more economically viable (eg creating new areas of meadow around an existing fragment)
  • Supporting landscape-scale restoration in areas where nature is still found at the landscape-scale. Further support for Nature Improvement Areas would do this.
  • Support for creating habitats near urban areas to enable people to visit and experience nature near where they live (ideally in walking or cycling distance).
  • Support for large new near-rewilding or rewilding projects, such as Ennerdale or Knepp.

In truth though I think the pot of money for agri-environment will be small. Other sources of funding may well be needed.

I may return to other issues later, but I may just go for a very long walk.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Some initial thoughts on a post-CAP farm subsidy system

  1. robseago says:

    A walk is what I must do now. Actually a Dormouse monitoring project. Thanks for the article. Those who are scared by the prospect of IDS, Boris and Gove directing things are going t have to focus or actions. It will be a hell of a fight.

  2. rob yorke says:

    Miles. How often did people ask for the CAP to be scrapped?
    A complex mix of pillar 1 (subsidy) – not required by many lowland farmers, vital to most upland farmers – and pillar 2 (support) for agri-enviro and innovation.
    What does society want from the countryside?
    There is a chance, with more collaborative joint projects with farmers/land managers themselves, that better outcomes can be found for how we produce affordable food and look after the environment.
    Learn to trust Miles, swallow your political slant for a moment, don’t throw out payments for ecosystems etc, and be ready to think of new ways to make things work.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Rob. I agree, there’s a lot to play for. Somebody now needs to take the lead and bring everyone together to discuss where we go from here, without any agenda of their own. Who might that be?

    • pete stevens says:

      Crikey. Here’s one of those people that don’t understand what a right wing vote this has been. He believes that the highly strengthened right wing of the tory party will support environmental payments. Sorry, maybe he is basing this on their enviable record. It was to be the greenest government ever after all…… I hope that did not sound too synical

  3. Sue Redshaw says:

    I just took that long walk with my dogs but my pleasure in the beautiful morning was overshadowed by a heavy heart. Good article, as ever.

  4. David Dunlop says:

    “And we are not living in the 1950s, the Forestry Commission is a very different beast and I think it highly unlikely that they would support a return to mass conifer afforestation of the hills.”

    Indeed, but, like Natural England, the FC (England) can be sat upon by central Government (and the equivalents by the 3 devolved administrations) IF commercial forestry is thought more worthy.

    The interests of commercial forestry are already being promoted in Hen Harrier SPA in the Republic of Ireland. As it’s not planning to leave the EU, legal challenge is an option there, though a time-consuming one.

    As to who might take the lead, I hope there’s a natural environment NGO contingency plan in place but, if so, I’m not privy to it. FoE-UK is already appealing for donations “to massively ramp up our nature campaigning to make sure these protections aren’t lost”.

    I’m at work drinking coffee and reading emails, so may become quite manic if I’m not careful. (!)

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Dave.. Yes I also saw the FoE appeal. What’s the Wildlife Trust’s take on it? They collectively are at risk of losing a shed load of CAP payments, both direct and agri-environment…

      • David Dunlop says:

        See: for an initial response from The Wildlife Trusts.

        In Lancashire / Greater Manchester / North Merseyside we’re meeting on Monday with cool heads and a constructive mindset – and reduced freshly ground coffee caffeine intake in my case! – to think things through, inasmuch as we haven’t already: our own income as a land manager is but one of many issues to address if we’re to to identify ways to deliver a positive future for our 3-counties and Irish Sea and their wildlife as the UK’s post-EU settlement is carved out; especially as devolution comes forward to two of those next year. “#morethanjustnaturereserves” as I used to plead back in our shared BBOWT days – before #-tags existed! 😉

      • Miles King says:

        I wish your musings well Dave – though I’d stick with the caffeine myself.

  5. I like your positive tone and I think there is a vacuum of how to manage this so we will have to manage the next round to get what’s best for the environment. I wish the Green Party could get farmers on board but think it will have to come from an alliance of conservation groups.

  6. David Rowe says:

    Miles, I fear you are being too optimistic. How long before the emboldened neo-liberal case will be for the abolition of subsidies, along with the “burden” of environmental legislation limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides and GM crops, so that British farming can “stand on its own two feet” and “compete with the world”?

    • Miles King says:

      I am not usually accused of being too optimistic! Excuse me while I bask in that particular moment.

      Yes the threat of a shift to a New Zealand style agriculture is great. But we have an opportunity to present, to the public, an alternative future for farming and land management – ideally at a general election.

  7. Lee says:

    This really is a fantastic opportunity to overhaul one of the most regressive subsidy systems ever created. We really need to start organising pressure groups to make these systems more environmentally friendly, fair and deserving of tax payers money.

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