The grass isn’t greener down un­der

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

LIKE many peo­ple in Bri­tain, Agromenes has a good num­ber of rel­a­tives in the old Com­mon­wealth. We catch up when they come through the UK and we talk a lot about farm­ing. I’m al­ways keen to un­der­stand how they deal with the wider world with­out the ad­van­tages of mem­ber­ship of a trad­ing group like the EU.

My Cana­dian con­tacts have long recog­nised the prob­lem and are, there­fore, gung-ho about their new free-trade deal with the EU. They re­gret that Bri­tain will be ex­cluded be­cause our Gov­ern­ment has fore­gone the sin­gle mar­ket. That an­noys them be­cause our mem­ber­ship of it mat­tered and they feel we’ve let them down. No doubt Bri­tain will have to ne­go­ti­ate its own deal, but that won’t be for some years.

More pre­dictable, per­haps, is our re­la­tion­ship with Aus­trala­sia—my most re­cent con­ver­sa­tions have been with New Zealand farm­ers, who aren’t hav­ing an easy time. Wool prices are low and, al­though dairy­ing has made some­thing of a come­back, there’s now a se­ri­ous risk of over-pro­duc­tion. The one bright spot is wine, which is a ma­jor source of rev­enue, but tra­di­tional farm­ers there are find­ing life in­creas­ingly hard. Al­though the agri­cul­tural econ­omy bounced back af­ter the abo­li­tion of sub­si­dies, their po­si­tion con­tin­ues to be pre­car­i­ous. Cap­i­tal is in­creas­ingly hard to find and yet, with­out sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment in ro­bot­ics and other tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments, they can­not com­pete. Just like the UK, their de­pen­dence on ir­ri­ga­tion con­tin­ues to grow and, as old per­mis­sions run out, the cost and avail­abil­ity of new li­cences are of se­ri­ous con­cern.

Ul­ti­mately, this is an agri­cul­tural sys­tem that’s ob­jec­tively un­com­pet­i­tive; it re­lies on a tax regime that levies nei­ther in­her­i­tance nor cap­i­tal gains taxes. This means that farm­ers who have just got by on their an­nual rev­enues can re­tire and pass on to the next gen­er­a­tion not only their land, but any di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion or other busi­ness ven­tures with­out tax.

Bri­tish farm­ers have to en­sure that, if our ur­ban-cen­tric po­lit­i­cal par­ties con­spire to re­move agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies when we leave the EU, they don’t quote what’s gone on with sup­port in New Zealand—as some com­men­ta­tors are do­ing—with­out mak­ing the fis­cal changes that have en­abled farm­ers there to keep their heads above wa­ter.

Even with so benev­o­lent a tax regime, how­ever, New Zealand farm­ers moan about bu­reau­cracy. You might have thought that with wide-open spa­ces, no pro­duc­tion sub­si­dies and no EU, farm­ers would be spared an­noy­ing pa­per­work. Not a bit of it. New Zealan­ders are leav­ing farm­ing be­cause they aren’t pre­pared to spend so much time fill­ing in forms and meet­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal health, bio-se­cu­rity and other reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments. They are ba­si­cally out­door types, for whom of­fice rou­tines are anath­ema. It’s hard for them to ac­cept de­mands for this de­tailed sup­ply-chain in­for­ma­tion.

Ad­vanced farm­ing ev­ery­where has to com­pete in a mar­ket­place that de­mands a proper reg­u­la­tory frame­work ad­dress­ing the de­mands of bio­di­ver­sity, wa­ter con­ser­va­tion, an­i­mal wel­fare and cli­mate change. Farm­ers blame governments for the growth in bu­reau­cracy, but the truth is that it’s the cus­tomers who make the de­mands. Peo­ple re­ally do want to be sure their food is prop­erly pro­duced and en­tirely safe. Per­haps we in Bri­tain should learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence of our Com­mon­wealth friends be­fore we blame the EU for what have be­come the es­sen­tial re­quire­ments of the mar­ket­place.

‘Ul­ti­mately, this is an agri­cul­tural sys­tem that’s ob­jec­tively un­com­pet­i­tive

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