Resilience, welfare, environment and bureaucracy to take centre stage in future UK subsidy plans
Fewer inspections; maintaining soil quality, clean rivers and wildlife habitats; and farm open days are all likely to form part of any new UK agriculture policy, Agriculture Secretary Michael Gove told UK farmers.
Speaking at the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) conference today, he said: “I believe investing in higher animal welfare standards and investing in improved training and education for those in agriculture and food production are clear public goods.”
Gove explained that post-Brexit policy would offer for the “very first time in Government” a strategy that is designed to integrate the concerns of all those involved in food and drink production – from farm to fork.
Gove said it was important that agricultural businesses developed resilience, including reducing labour requirements, to allow them to cope with the future.
He said: “We need policies which can help farmers and food producers develop resilience in the face of change, adapt to new opportunities and meet the expectations of future generations, while all the time promoting health, celebrating beauty and valuing permanence.”
In an effort to build resilience, he said over the medium to long term businesses would need to move away from a relatively “labour intensive model” of agriculture to a more “capital intensive approach”.
“But we can only do that if farming stays profitable. And we can only stay profitable with access to the right labour,” he said.
More devolved ag powers
Gove also added that post-Brexit Britain would see devolved administrations given more power over agriculture.
He said: “Outside the EU the devolved administrations will have more powers than ever to shape agricultural policies that suit their jurisdictions and to devise methods of support that suit the farmers and consumers in their nations.
“Of course, we are all working together to ensure there will be UK-wide frameworks on areas of common concern, like animal and plant health, and no decisions are taken that harm our own internal UK market.”
He added that the current subsidy system was too bureaucratic, suggesting that future agriculture policy could also see a more efficient inspection process.
He said: “Leaving the EU also means – critically – reforming the current subsidy system for farming and food production.
“[It] secures scarcely any environmental benefits and, in turn, requires a vast and inflexible bureaucracy to police.
“[So too] does the current farming inspection regime which, despite several recent attempts at simplification, remains as unwieldy as ever.
“Every year, farmers are confronted by a barrage of inspections from different agencies, often duplicating costs – in both time and money.”
‘Public money for public goods’
Gove also gave further clarity on subsidies.
He said: “We propose to progressively transfer money away from the Basic Payment Scheme towards the payment of public money for the provision of public goods.
“We will guarantee all existing agri-environment agreements entered into before we leave the EU but, critically, we will also invite farmers, land owners and land managers to help us pilot new ways of investing in environmental enhancement and other public goods.
“We already estimate that soil degradation costs the economy of England and Wales a huge £1.2 billion [€1.4 billion] every year. Soil is a building block of life, alongside water and air and we need to invest in its health.”
Gove explained that granting public access was also an important way for consumers to understand the work of farmers and reinforced the message that this would also be considered a “public good”.
However, rather than suggesting farmers offer public access to all farm land, his speech highlighted alternatives such as farm open days.
He said: “Not that we should encourage everyone to ride or walk roughshod through working areas, but the more connected we all are to the countryside, the more we know and appreciate what’s involved in farming and food production, the more understanding there will be of the need to value and support what farmers do.
“That’s why initiatives like Open Farm Sunday, supported by the NFU, and the work of organisations like LEAF [Linking Environment and Farming] is so important and needs to be supported.”
Gove added that high animal welfare standards could also be rewarded under the new plans.
He said: “We have a high baseline for animal health standards, which we will continue to enforce.
“However, we could also support industry-led initiatives to improve these standards, especially in cases where animal welfare remains at the legislative minimum.
“This may include pilot schemes that offer payments to farmers delivering higher welfare outcomes, or payments to farmers running trial approaches and technologies to improve animal welfare that are not yet an industry standard.”
Opportunities in Brexit
Gove said that post-Brexit Britain could bring new opportunities to the sector and added that recent export growth had been boosted by food and drink sales overseas.
He said: “That growth has been enabled by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the new opportunities it has given our exporters.
“And leaving the EU also, of course, requires us to develop new policies on food and farming. For the first time in almost half a century, we are free to design policies from first principles that put British farmers, and consumers, first.
“We can use public money to reward those farmers and food producers who grow healthy food in a sustainable fashion, we can invest in local food economies and we can support higher environmental standards overall.”