Why the NFU will have to whis­tle

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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