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Threatened delay to farming reforms benefits no one

I am old enough to remember when everyone wanted rid of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Brexit offered the chance of something better, “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform agriculture” and move to a system of “public money for public goods”. But there is now a steady drumbeat of opposition from MPs of all parties, and farming reform is in the balance.

I am not too worried that climate sceptics are calling for the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes to be delayed. The real threat comes from politicians who should know better.

It will end up with a return to the hated CAP regime
Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ farming lead, is outspoken in calling for basic payments to be continued. For Labour, Jim McMahon is also reported to support a delay to the phasing out of basic payments. If that happens, around £2 billion a year in public subsidy will continue to go to farmers in England, almost without condition, most of it to farmers receiving £100,000 a year or more. This is policy for the few, not the many. A growing number of Conservative MPs are also undermining reform. Geoffrey Clinton-Brown, for instance, wants food to “be classed as a public good with public money”. So much for the free market.

None of the opponents of reform are saying, “let’s return to something like the CAP, and damn the environmental consequences”. But that is the end they are willing. The danger is all the more serious because the prime minister is so vulnerable to backbench pressure. So what will happen if he gives up on farming reform?

First, something that will not be delivered: “food security”. War in Ukraine is rightly focusing minds. It will have a particularly severe impact in Africa, not least Egypt, host of this year’s UN climate conference (Russia and Ukraine account for 82 per cent of its imported wheat). In the UK, rising food prices are strengthening the case, already strong, for a National Food Strategy. Global food security and UK food resilience are serious issues and deserve much more attention.

We need a better food system
But delaying ELM will do nothing for either. There is no clear correlation between output and the area of land farmed, or between what we grow in the UK, what we eat and how much it costs. We are self sufficient in some foods, not in others (we do particularly poorly on fruit and veg, which take up relatively little land). We use food for fuel (if the UK ceased to use crop-based biofuels and the crops were grown to feed people instead, we could feed around 3.5 million more people a year). We grow food for export (the NFU wants to increase the UK’s agri-food exports by 30 per cent by 2030). And we grow lots of food to feed animals.

We can and should devise a better food system. But, as George Eustice asked at a recent Soil Association conference, “to what problem is a subsidy on land ownership the answer?… I can’t think of one.” Nor can I.

Those who argue that we cannot afford more land for nature or climate mitigation need to be clearer about what land they would use for what purpose. Because they look as if they are defending a subsidy regime that is bad for the land, bad for consumers and bad for taxpayers.

It is also bad for the climate. Both  adaptation and mitigation demand land use change. Delaying ELM by two years would leave a substantial gap in the UK’s net zero plans.

And it is bad for nature. The way we farm – the way farmers have been paid and encouraged to farm – is very largely responsible for nature’s decline. That is why environmentalists have been so frustrated with what they see as the slow pace and timidity of farming reform. There is a strong case for going further, faster, eloquently made by Wildlife and Countryside Link’s CEO Richard Benwell. But if you care about nature, there is no case for turning back.

It is bad for water quality. The media focus has been sewage in rivers, but run off from farming is an even bigger cause of water pollution. We need to change farming practices. Politicians who attack the government on their campaign leaflets for doing too little to clean our rivers should join the dots.

Finally, it is bad for farmers. They deserve support and sympathy; certainty about funding regimes, regulatory changes and the direction of travel; and a trade policy that promotes, rather than undermines, high standards. Some may also need short term financial support, given the rising cost of inputs. And farmers should be respected as food producers: no one should diminish the importance of food production, any more than they should diminish the importance of the other ‘services’ farmers provide (culture, landscape, nature, beauty, carbon storage, flood prevention, etc).

Pausing ELM won’t help farmers
But pausing ELM will not help farmers in the long run. It will give a terrible message to the many who are up for change, keen to farm for carbon and nature as well as food. Nor will it benefit those resistant to change. We will be back to a hated, dysfunctional system of agriculture support.

Those calling for delay are playing a dangerous game. Of course, the Future Farming and Countryside Programme can be improved in many ways and we should continue to debate the pace and nature of that change. But if the reform programme is ditched or paused, we will not get the NFU’s perfect system or Tim Farron’s or Green Alliance’s or anyone else’s. One of the biggest potential bonuses of Brexit will have been lost. The chance of reaching our targets for nature, water and climate will have been lost or severely damaged.

If we pause now, all the energy behind reform – this ‘once in a generation’ opportunity – will be lost and, with it, the chance to create something better. Gradually, money for farming will be whittled away, as the Treasury questions why it should spend (across the UK) over £3 billion a year for little tangible benefit.

Is that the future anyone concerned about food, farming or the environment really wants?

Written by

Executive director of Green Alliance (www.green-alliance.org.uk) and Chair of the Greener UK board (http://greeneruk.org/).

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