Why the NFU will have to whistle
WHAT on earth does the National Farmers Union (NFU) think it’s about? After the failure of leadership during the Referendum, it’s now faffing around insisting that farmers can and should expect continued production support after 2020. The President, Meurig Raymond, is even saying that, if Brexit ends in a bad trade deal, agriculture will need more subsidy.
Even though Agromenes believes there are very good reasons for continuing the present mixed system, part of which does subsidise production, he’s got to admit there’s no way it’s going to happen. We don’t have to look into any crystal ball because the Treasury has already published its view of the future and, freed from the significant influence of the continental farming lobbies, that’s what we’ll get.
The key to its thinking is set out in Treasury guidance to British negotiators in the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) reform process. Published back in 2005, it called for ‘a substantial decrease in total EU spending on agriculture with the remaining expenditure focused exclusively on promoting sustainable rural development and maintaining the environment’. And, as if that were not enough: ‘All price support, export refunds, and production subsidies would be eliminated.’
This remains the policy and the NFU should not be misled by the Chancellor’s commitment to maintaining the present system until 2020— he has to. We’re in the EU until 2019 and there will be no time to introduce a new system any earlier. Philip Hammond merely stated a fact; he gave no promise for the future.
No British government of recent years has believed that we should subsidise farm production. We’ve done so because it was a fundamental part of the deal between France and Germany that brought the Common Market into existence. UK ministers have continually pressed for change, but still never gained the free-market reform the Treasury wanted—the farming lobbies in France, Germany and Eastern Europe were too strong.
However, in Britain, there isn’t a constituency where farmers make a difference to an election result so, left to ourselves, agriculture as a business will be treated like any other. We will only pay for the privilege if we want that business to deliver public goods. Therefore, when Defra produces its 25-year plan for flood prevention, farmers will be expected to grow trees and farm differently to help keep water in the hills and stop it from cascading into the towns and villages in the valleys. For that, they can expect some help.
Our commitments in Paris on climate change mean that agriculture will need to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by altering farming practices and doing more to preserve and enhance the quality of our increasingly less fertile soils. Again, financial help will be necessary to make those changes, but the subsidy cheque will be no more.
It’s not just the politics, it’s the economics. The hole in the Chancellor’s budget consequent upon Brexit means that CAP payments are already spoken for. The Leavers promised that the money would all go to the NHS. They didn’t allow any money for farmers and, as they now can’t deliver their NHS promise, there’s no chance at all for agriculture subsidies.
That’s why the NFU should stop whistling in the wind and get down to figuring out its ‘public money for public goods’ policy. It could produce, in cahoots with the environmental lobbies, a credible case for farming support unconnected with production. That might even amount to £1 billion of the £3 billion farmers now receive, which is a prize worth securing and one that could be won. Fighting for more of the present deal is simply to fight a lost cause.
‘Fighting for more of the present deal is simply to fight a lost cause
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