Future farming policy: putting all our asks in one Brexit?

Politics is finally emerging from the shock and awe of the Brexit decision and frameworks for policy development for a new post-EU future are beginning to emerge. An abiding question is whether the political and economic realities of our impending separation will mean damage limitation is required or whether Brexit presents opportunities, not least for innovation and dynamism in business and in policy.

The risks of damage are perhaps nowhere clearer than for farming. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has taken the lion’s share of the EU budget for decades. Though it has fallen recently, it’s doubtful HM Treasury will want to continue funding farming in the way the CAP has done. George Freeman MP, chair of the PM’s policy board, has recently suggested as much.

Not least the Brexit debate set many hares running about where our ‘repatriated’ EU contributions could or should go and farming wasn’t at the top of the list. If we add in the risk that the trade deals finally settled upon are likely to meet the needs of the most influential industries – perhaps financial services or engineering – then farming could face both cuts to a stable source of funding and more intense competition from often cheaper imports.   

These challenges are faced by an industry that is already in a precarious economic position. Despite turnover of nearly £24 billion in 2015, little short of half of the ‘income’ from farming came from public funding, not farmers producing food. In 2014-2015, farms in the cereals and grazing livestock sectors upland and lowland were on CAP life-support: they made losses. Overall, the farming industry is struggling from a combination of interrelated economic pressures despite public funding: long-term falls in farm gate prices, volatility on world markets, a de facto cheap food policy in the UK and supermarkets driving food prices down as they compete for customer loyalty and market share.  

Brexit hasn’t changed all these factors but it offers the chance, unparalleled in 40 years, to reshape farming policy to better address them and other pressing needs. Within the new frameworks of its 25 year plans for farming and the environment, the Government has a signal opportunity to be progressive. It’s also a moment for all those who care about the countryside and the future of farming to support an ambitious agenda.   

A first goal must be to agree on how to create a resilient, financially stable and dynamic farming industry for the long term. Without it food production will be less secure and the rural economy weakened.

A second and equal goal must be to agree on how farming can be made to work for the wider community and the environment. We should take it as understood that a farmer’s vocation is to produce food. Although food production depends on environmental assets, we can’t rely on farmers’ benevolence and voluntary action on the environment when they face tough markets and a fight to survive in the short term. But equally, if substantial amounts of public money are to keep going into farming, we can’t rely either on public benevolence to fund farmers for business as usual.

This means farming fit for the future has to engage with a wider set of issues as a norm: it must address unsustainable use of natural resources and the damage caused to wildlife, water quality, soils and landscapes. So a central goal for future policy post-Brexit – which the Government’s new plans for farming and the environment must help achieve - should be to recognise its multipurpose role: we need to farm for food and beyond food too.

In a country with a relatively small land area and growing population we don’t have the space or freedom for farming to do otherwise: farming must continue to feed us and provide cherished landscapes, clean water and effective flood management, healthy soils that soak up carbon, thriving ecosystems that support abundant wildlife, all of which benefit the public in myriad ways. These are benefits that the market poorly rewards, if at all.

These are benefits that, if farming is oriented towards them by policy with proper levels of funding, should bring greater efficiencies – for example, by ensuring fewer nitrates enter water bodies, that pesticides are targeted precisely - and cost savings to farmers. They will avoid costs to the public too: for the clean-up of water polluted by run-off, for the dredging of eroded soils, insurance bills for flood repair and the unpredictable fall out costs of global warming.

The case to fund multipurpose farming should and can be based on strong principles: demonstrable public benefits for public funding, accountability to those who pay, a holistic approach to link farming with nature across the landscape and fewer costs, more efficiency and better value for money.  Framed this way there is a strong case to be made to Government to win the first battle in the post-Brexit debate: to maintain public funding into farming at the high levels we will need to create the resilient farming sector that can do what we need for food, for communities and for the natural environment.

Graeme Willis is senior rural policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect to Rural England. You can read more about these ideas in their new report, New Model Farming: resilience through diversity

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.