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Farmageddon – How the countryside is being shafted by Brexit leaders

Tractors carrying out deep bed shaping followed by sowing the fields in early springs time at Burnham Overy in North Norfolk, East Anglia, England, UK. Photo by: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images - Credit: Education Images/Universal Image

Farmers are waking up to the effect Brexit could have on their industry, says PETER HETHERINGTON.

Farmers appeared reassured when the minister, who is currently Boris Johnson’s deputy, warned that British agriculture would suffer “considerable turbulence” from a no-deal Brexit. At least, they reasoned, a Tory government was on their side.

Michael Gove went further a year ago, arguing against “bartering” the country’s high welfare standards for a short-term trade-off – a clear repudiation of a UK-US trade deal which might lead to chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef arriving on our supermarket shelves.

“We do need to be clear about the costs and the facts,” Gove cautioned. In a further, if unexpected blast at Brextremists, he then reminded his audience that beef and lamb exports to the EU – main market for UK farmers – could face 40% tariffs, “and in some cases well above that”, in the event of no-deal, with smaller-scale farmers and food businesses the hardest hit.

Those warnings were made when Gove, briefly soft Brexiteer turned realist, was environment, food and farming supremo. They came with the promise of an agricultural revolution to improve both food standards and the countryside – “public money for public goods” became the new catchphrase – while addressing climate change. Now they seem, at best, hollow to the farmers – who voted for Brexit in large numbers, according to anecdotal evidence – who run an estimated 210,000 holdings in Britain, from large agri-enterprises to small family undertakings. Talk to farmers today, and three words can precede the inevitable expletives: “We’ve been shafted.”

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At the annual conference of the National Farmers’ Union last week, George Eustice, the new secretary of state in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – the unfortunate fall-guy for a back-sliding government – was booed by delegates when he failed to provide reassurances on future trade deals which might lead to cheaper food imports from countries, like the USA, with weaker regulatory standards.

Seemingly following Gove’s lead last year, delegates wanted Boris Johnson’s government to back an NFU-inspired Lords amendment to the new agriculture bill, imposing tough standards on food imports. “I can’t provide any such assurances,” replied the unfortunate Eustice, a long-serving Defra junior minister, from a Cornish farming family, who has inherited the ultimate poisoned ministerial chalice.

The NFU’s assertive president Minette Batters was clearly taken aback by the minister’s prevarication. She told him: “When we have no assurance at all on the standard of food, that does one thing – that puts these guys (NFU members) out of business.”

The new bill foreshadows a world outside the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which delivers support of around £3 billion annually to British farmers – now facing subsidy cuts in a new regime which will probably force hundreds of small farmers, particularly on the uplands, either into retirement or to the dole queue.

The pending legislation marks a radical shift away from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which pays farmers for the total amount of land farmed. Instead they will receive “public money for public goods” if they improve land and water quality, and habitats for wildlife while providing better access to the countryside – “a future where farmers are properly supported to farm more innovatively and protect the environment,” according to Defra.

But it comes at a cost. Under a tiered system of cuts (to the outgoing CAP payments) over seven years, farmers will face a 5% cut to annual subsidies below £30,000 with stepped increases in reductions to higher subsidies – rising to a 25% cut on any amount above £150,000, currently paid to the largest farms.

Exactly how this will be implemented isn’t clear. The National Audit Office, the government spending watchdog, last year warned that Defra had not left enough time to introduce the new funding system. Rural and farming research institutes at universities are being asked for help, at some considerable cost to Defra, with pilot projects to test the new system planned to start next year. Scotland and Wales operate a different system of payments.

But the NFU, angered that the bill omits assurances on future trade deals with countries operating different animal health and quality standards – like the USA – wants a pause and thinks the government isn’t coming clean. “It would be an absolute dereliction of duty… to allow us to go into a new regime of public money for public goods when we have no idea who we will be trading with,” fumed Minette Batters.

Reassurances from Defra have proved elusive. Farmers fear a hidden agenda – not least because Dominic Cunnings, the prime minister’s key adviser, has attacked farming subsidies in the past as policies “dreamed up in the 1950s and 1960s” to support rich farmers and raise prices while damaging agriculture in poorer countries. No matter that the Cummings’ family farm in Durham received almost 235,000 euros in EU subsidies between 2000 and 2009, according to an analysis of Land Registry documents by the Observer last year.

Concerns from the industry will hardly have been allayed by newspaper reports over the weekend quoting a senior government official suggesting Britain does not need its own farming industry. In leaked emails obtained by the Mail on Sunday, Treasury adviser Tim Leunig argues that the food sector is not “critically important” to the economy – and that agriculture and fishery production “certainly isn’t”.

But probably the most damaging charge against the government is the lack of any coherent strategy to address the great climate challenges facing the UK, particularly the intensity and regularity of flooding in the aftermath of storms Ciara and Dennis, which engulfed swathes of farmland throughout England. And farmers could play their part.

For instance, the former chief scientific adviser to the government, who spent seven years at Defra before stepping down last August, has called for a widespread reappraisal of land management practices. Prof Sir Ian Boyd thinks half the nation’s farmland should be transformed into woodlands and natural habitats to fight the climate crisis – in effect, creating carbon sinks in the uplands to absorb water and prevent flooding downstream. He says farmers are potentially “sitting on a gold mine” in terms of the payments they could receive for growing trees and helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We need a large, radical transformation and we need to do it quickly,” he says.

More immediately, the NFU is concerned that the government’s flood prevention strategy is based primarily on protecting residential areas and high-value properties at the expense of farmland. Rather than valuing farm land at – say – £8,000 an acre in a cost-benefit analysis to justify flood defence funding, Rob Wise, a senior NFU adviser in East Anglia, says the true value should be “three to four times” higher when the cost of production is factored in alongside the number of jobs supported in the crop supply chain.

But there’s a broader issue, which seems to have eluded a government seemingly more consumed with post-Brexit trade deals than with ramping up domestic food production. At present the country produces barely 60% of the crops it is capable of growing – compared with 80% in the 1980s. The figure is falling. Half the nation’s best top grade farmland lies in the east of England, and the Fens – much of it below sea level.

The Fens, protected by a network of 386 pumping stations and 160 miles of coastal and river embankments, are vulnerable – and some, close to government, are speculating whether it is worth defending them in the medium term rather than returning them to a previous wetland state and soft pasture.

It is a question which should be addressed sooner rather than later. But like much in government, big issues of the day – and, what bigger than feeding the nation? – are kicked into what remains of the long grass.

Peter Hetherington is the author of Whose Land is Our Land? Policy Press, University of Bristol

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