It feels like something momentous has just happened. UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has published his long-awaited Agriculture Bill, the first in a series of laws which will shape the future of Britain’s environment, after Brexit.
Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has shaped how farmers receive financial support from the taxpayer, for over 40 years. Farmers currently receive €4 billion of support each year, much of which goes to landowners with large estates, like vacuum cleaner billionaire James Dyson, who don’t need it. Gove’s vision of a Green Brexit includes changing the way farmers receive public support. Whereas at the moment they need do nothing to receive most of the money, in future, all of it will be tied to delivering what are technically known as public goods.
The Bill (and the reasonably comprehensive set of documents which accompany it) describes what public goods are – thriving plants and wildlife, clean air, preventing flooding, improved public access to farmland and healthy soil. Better animal welfare is also put forward as a public good, although I would suggest that rather depends on the place from where you start from. It is also made clear that growing food is not a public good (it’s a private good – because the food is sold on the market to whoever will pay the highest price) although growing it in ways that are less environmentally damaging (e.g. organically) could be seen as a public good.
It’s also important to recognise that public goods are different from public benefits. There are benefits, for example, to producing a substantial proportion of the food we consume, rather than importing it. And this is particularly true of home-grown fruit and vegetables, where we produce a lamentably low proportion of the indigenous foods we consume. One good reason for producing a decent amount of indigenous food is that we have far greater control over the environmental and social impact of that food if it’s grown here. Importing food means exporting those impacts.
Another argument, put forward forcefully over the past couple of years, is that upland farmers have long been particularly dependent on income payments, and that they deliver a public good called “rural vitality”, which means supporting isolated rural communities by giving extra money to their farming activities. This argument does not appear to have been accepted by Michael Gove, although I am sure it will be pressed home as the Bill makes its way through Parliament. Upland farmers that farm in sustainable ways, such as those who graze our uplands in a sympathetic way (like this one), should be able to reap generous payments for multiple public goods, as well as being able to charge a premium for the food they produce.
What could happen now
The Bill also describes how we will move from the current system to the new one. Gove’s timetable is a long one, with a full seven-year transition, which doesn’t start until 2021. So the current system of payments, the Common Agricultural Policy, continues until then. The current approach to payments will gradually taper off over those seven years, while the new system comes on line at the same time.
Eventually farmers and landowners will only be paid to deliver the public goods mentioned earlier. One controversial proposal is to make lump sum payments to farmers as “golden parachutes” encouraging them to leave farming and open up opportunities for new entrants. It’s not clear how this would work in practice though, because current payments are tied to specific pieces of land and are conditional on farmers abiding by rules to prevent environmental damage (though these are weak.)
There will be other money available to support technical advances in equipment and practices. The emphasis in the documents is on advances which reduce environmental impact, although the door is left open for funding to support technical advances which may be more controversial. Those who would wish to see genetically modified crops grown in the UK will not see anything in the Bill that prevents this from happening.
Another possible beneficiary will be zero-till farming. Crops are drilled directly into fields, without ploughing. This is good for the soil and reduces the need for fertilisers, but depends on the use of the controversial herbicide glyphosate. One particular area of research which could really benefit from serious funding is to find ways of farming without cultivation that doesn’t rely on chemical herbicides.
The Bill also makes proposals for detailed monitoring of supply chains in the hope that this will strengthen the farmers’ hand in negotiations with buyers, and not just from the big four supermarkets. Vicki Hird from food campaign group Sustain was pleased to see measures that give farmers more powers when dealing with buyers, in the Bill: “A broad coalition of groups have said consistently that we need far stronger regulation of the market so all sectors of farming can get a fair reward in the market place which is not the case currently.”
This is what farming groups are worried out – will the approach of only paying for public goods mean that farm incomes go down, to the point where farmers who are already struggling will just give up, take the golden parachute and sell their farms? If it is going to work, several things need to happen.
What needs to happen
Farmers need to get a fair share of the retail cost of food – at the moment they don’t. Secondly the current budget of £3.5 billion a year needs to be protected from the grasping hands of the Treasury. That money needs to be recycled back into paying for public goods. The 25 Year Environment Plan proposed a Nature Recovery Network of 500,000ha of new habitat across England. That will cost a lot of money to create and manage.
At the moment farmers who carry out work for the environment or other public goods, only get a proportion of the cost of that work, because of the way the EU scheme operates. After Brexit, the Government will be able to make more generous payments, which adequately reflect the cost to the farm of providing public goods. Some argue that World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules will prevent us from doing this, but this is incorrect, as RSPB farm policy expert Tom Lancaster explains here. As consumers we can also do our bit by buying directly from farmers, or buying organic and fair trade produce, where farmers receive a better reward for their hard work.
The Bill and associated documents still leave many questions unanswered. What will happen to cross compliance, the complex set of rules which farmers who receive farm subsidies must abide by? There is talk of creating new farm regulations, although most of this relates to animal welfare.
We need a strong set of regulations to protect our environment, heritage and already existing animal welfare laws. Payments need to be focussed on actions that go above and beyond what is already required by law. There will also need to be a very substantial investment in a network of professional advisors who can help farmers draw up individual plans for each farm, showing what public goods they would be best focused on delivering. It’s no good if every farm produces skylarks; or if farms are paid to provide public goods which can’t be delivered.
It’s natural that organisations like the National Farmers Union (NFU) want to continue with something closer to the status quo, where farmers are paid money (and a disproportionate amount of that subsidy goes to the large farms) and they then decide how to spend it. What’s perhaps more surprising is to see the Labour party also moving towards this position, arguing that some form of income support may be needed, as well as public money for public goods. But why should farmers receive special income support, when other sectors receive none? Farmers and landowners already receive a plethora of other benefits and tax breaks on top of their farm subsidies.
This Bill is a bold, perhaps even radical move on the part of Michael Gove. Most environmental groups have argued for years, perhaps decades, that this is the direction agriculture policy should be moving in. The next few months will see whether that vision survives the passage through Parliament, or whether the old vested interests win out.
this post first appeared on Lush Times