It’s a special anniversary this year – 70 years since the 1947 Farming Act. I will return to this anniversary in more detail later in the year, but today I want to discuss one particular thing. The 1947 Act was most unusual, possibly unique, because it enshrined in law an obligation on the part of Government to agree a very important and very expensive national policy, with an NGO.
Can you imagine this happening now?
That NGO, as some of you may have already guessed, was none other than the National Farmers Union, the NFU. The Act stipulated that the Ministry of Agriculture would sit down, every February, with representatives from the NFU, and conduct the Annual Farm Price Review. At this review, the price paid to farmers for commodities, such as beef, wheat or potatoes, was thrashed out. Behind closed doors. Not even the Treasury got a look in. Needless to say those at the Min of Ag (many of whom had taken part in the wartime programmes to produce food at any and all cost) were close friends of the NFU reps. I wonder if any minutes of the meetings survive at the National Records Office.
The purpose of this subsidy was to pay farmers the difference between what the market was offering for their produce, and the price that had been set between the Min of Ag and the farmers for that commodity, in that year. This was called Agricultural Price Support. It’s interesting to note that the subsidy was not intended to provide cheap food to the consumer, but to ensure Agricultural Production increased dramatically. Cheap food imports were still encouraged (via low tariffs) and farmers were compensated for their relatively higher production costs by the price support mechanism. These meetings and the cartel they represented continued for decades.
Here’s one story of a Cabinet level discussion on farm prices:
you can read more about this interesting piece of history in this article.
Fast forward to 2017. Surely, you might think, everything has changed now? In these straitened times, the NFU couldn’t possibly be thinking of reintroducing the notion of price support! Well you would be wrong.
It seems the NFU has been delving back through its long and distinguished history to come up with some new (ahem) proposals for what a farm subsidy system might look like post-Brexit. The policy document I have seen suggests that the NFU wants to propose a support system with an emphasis on “delivering for food, for the nation and for the public.” Note that it does not specifically say “supporting farmers”.
What appears to be the main element of this support system is a scheme of payments to “mitigate volatility”. This is jargon for price support, and there we are taken straight back to 1947. Prices for agricultural products do fluctuate in global markets, according to how much of each thing is produced, and what the demand for that thing is. Prices can also fluctuate wildly, because traders exploit weaknesses in the market system to speculate, in order to make quick profits. The NFU are also considering proposing “coupled” subsidies for market volatility – that is subsidies which are linked to how much of a particular agricultural product is produced by each farm. Coupled subsidies were mostly abandoned under the Common Agricultural Policy in 2005, because of their damaging impact on the environment and their tendency to encourage over production (remember the wine lakes and butter mountains?).
In another throw back to days of yore, the NFU is also proposing a system of capital grants to improve productivity. Another piece of ancient history – the 1947 Act introduced capital grants for farmers to increase their productivity by draining wetlands, ripping out ancient woods and hedgerows, and ploughing wildflower meadows and heathlands.
But I don’t want to suggest that the NFU has only returned to the golden days of the Annual Farm Price Review. There are some indications that the NFU recognise that the public expects them, as custodians of 3/4 of England’s land, to do other things. So they are proposing a “farmed environment scheme”. While this is touted as a replacement for the “greening” payments under the current CAP system, it’s really a return to the Entry Level Scheme (ELS). ELS was dreamt up by the NFU and their friends in Defra (and a few conservation NGOs) as away of channeling subsidies to farmers in such a way that it gave the impression that they were helping farmland wildlife and heritage features. The evidence from monitoring showed, as many of us said at the time, that at best ELS was merely putting a hold on further environmental damage, and in the main it did nothing for wildlife or other features.
Not surprisingly ELS was abandoned as an approach to Agri-Environment in the 2013 reforms, much to the annoyance of farmers who had been happy to take the £30 a hectare a year, for doing much as they had been doing before.
There is also a proposal for subsidy for the euphemistically titled “animal and plant health measures”. I think we can all guess what this means – that part of a farm subsidy policy will pay to kill more badgers.
The most interesting proposal coming from the NFU is for a “selective scheme for environmental enhancement in designated areas.” This sounds promising, until you read on to discover that the NFU have cheerfully combined National Park AONB and SSSI all together in one lump of “designated area.” As someone who has watched the Dorset AONB disappear under Maize for biogas over the past few years, while fighting to protect one particular area (Rampisham Down) which is an SSSI, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could be so ignorant as to lump the two together, as if they needed the same approach.
So, in a nutshell, there are the NFU’s proposals. No mention of public goods for public money, nothing about helping alleviate downstream flooding, no mention of Carbon, let alone Organic. When you add in comments from the NFU at last week’s farming conference that they were hoping for a 20 year transition period out of the CAP, and you can see that they are clearly living in NFU la la land.
For an alternative take on the future of farm subsidies, read the People Need Nature report “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for farming, food and nature.”
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