In the wake of Brexit our agricultural policy is suddenly up for grabs. This could be a chance for a ‘new deal’ for our food system – helping struggling small-scale farmers, restoring the environment, revitalising local economies and creating new jobs. Yet at the moment it appears that the agriculture and environment minister, Andrea Leadsom, prefers a ‘get big or get out’ approach that will continue to damage the planet.
Since 1973, the UK farming sector has been shaped by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its subsidies, but the original postwar purpose of CAP has long since been played out and there is a broad consensus that it has become a disaster on many fronts.
One of the biggest criticisms is that it hands wealthy landowners millions of pounds from public funds, while smaller farmers receive little or nothing. There are also strong environment criticisms, and attempts to bring environmental factors into CAP have been grossly inadequate. As a result, a system of large-scale industrial agriculture is rewarded while small-scale ecological methods are largely ignored.
Instead, a progressive subsidy system would ensure that public money is used for public goods. A report by Global Justice Now and the New Economics Foundation proposes a system that would:
1) Give each active farmer with at least one hectare of land a universal payment of £5,000
The payment would be conditional on a meaningful active farmer requirement, basic environmental stewardship such as prevention of soil erosion, animal welfare standards and a small number of other minimum standards on a ‘do no harm’ basis. The amount is slightly higher than most farmers currently receive, and would be a significant redistribution, levelling the playing field. However this would actually save the taxpayer money because much less would go to large landowners.
2) Offer grants for medium-scale, regional infrastructure, including processing facilities and local business development programmes
This would allow local supply chains to be strengthened and maintained, while supporting new business models and small-scale producers.
3) Offer subsidies for the provision of specific public goods
Public goods could include environmental benefits around climate change, soil quality, landscape, wildlife and agricultural biodiversity. They could also include social benefits such as job creation and support for small-scale farmers, healthy good food, resilience, democratic accountability and support for local economies.
While the first element above incorporates ‘do no harm’ standards, this element would be for things that make an active, positive contribution. It could include restoring natural habitats, creating natural flood protection, preserving and passing on skills or knowledge that are important to our heritage, reducing local unemployment, increasing healthy eating, along with many other areas.
Decisions on which public goods to prioritise and how to allocate budget would be devolved to regions, thus also helping to support local democracy.
In contrast to this a recent speech by Andrea Leadsom made no firm commitment to continuing significant funding for agriculture beyond 2020. Instead, in the name of cutting red tape, she wants to cut the standards and regulations that help to protect our environment, food safety and public health – public goods that we should instead be strengthening.
The choices made at this point about the policies for the UK to follow, will be vital – for farmers, the environment and the public.