Farming needs a plan –and it needs it now
HARVEST Thanksgiving 2016 is more solemn than usual. It’s not been a bumper year, which has emphasised the vulnerability of farming to world food prices and its dependence on agricultural support. A whole generation of farmers is therefore wondering what the future holds in a go-it-alone Britain. The easy assumptions that marked the referendum campaign have given way to increasing concern at the extent of uncertainty.
Philip Hammond’s commitment to ‘business as usual’, but only until 2020, is perhaps the only certainty and is increasingly recognised as the best he could do. He knows no more than anyone else what Brexit will really mean for agriculture and the countryside. Indeed, careful analysis of the speeches of the man in charge of the whole process, David Davis, reveals the total absence of any plan. There is nothing: no programme, no strategy, no red lines. His largely vacuous pronouncements give no hint of an agricultural policy—because there isn’t one. Any smoothtalking professional advisers who claim to know what the Government has in mind are simply making it up. The Government hasn’t got anything in mind, any more than has any government in the rest of Europe.
The farming industry ought to fill that gap and give Theresa May some idea of what’s needed. And that’s the problem—apart from a general desire that things shouldn’t get worse, there is no consensus in the countryside. At one extreme, the foolish think they can have more or less what they’ve got now (of course, without the paperwork). At the other, the wise realise that this is a new world in which agriculture will have to justify any support it gets and justify it to a largely unresponsive nation. With no French or German agricultural lobby in support, that will not be easy. Without a unified plan, it will be impossible.
However, the signs of any such plan are nonexistent. The NFU seems to have turned in on itself. Substituting consultation for leadership, it’s wandering round the country asking the members what they think. Inevitably, that means the formulation of a farming wishlist to which the NFU will be institutionally shackled. It’s therefore unlikely to have any of the flexibility that will be essential if it’s to win concessions from the Government.
Meanwhile, the environmental campaigners are recovering from the shock of Brexit, which, almost to a man and woman, they opposed. Their priority is simply to turn agricultural support into a driver for environmental policy. No more production payments, just money for wildlife, habitats, flood prevention and soil improvement. They argue that this is the only programme for which the public will pay. It’s all very admirable, but whether there would be any farmers left able and willing to take up this support is open to doubt. What is certain is that this vision is far removed from that of the NFU.
Without a rural policy with broad rural backing, we will be left to the mercy of the Treasury. It’s got its eye on the £3 billion we now spend on support to plug the gaps in the UK’S post-brexit finances. A credible programme designed to fund farming and the environment is, therefore, vital. Someone has to bring the industry and the NGOS together round a common policy. Agromenes believes that’s a task for the long-term landholders, represented by the CLA. They must corral us all into demanding a continuation of economically effective and environmentally sound agricultural support. Without that, Brexit will truly be a disaster for the countryside.
‘There is nothing: no programme, no strategy, no red lines
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