Director of agricultural policy at the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW), Nick Fenwick, tells farmers to be on their guard when reading any Government documents about Brexit.
Farmers are generally not particularly good at reading consultation papers, but the Defra consultation on post-Brexit agricultural policies is one they should not only read, but read between the lines of – and do so alongside a copy of their farm accounts, with alarm bells on full standby.
Described by the UK Government as setting out ‘an ambitious and positive future for farming’, for one Cardiff University academic, Defra’s ‘Health and Harmony’ document is just a glossed over plan which would see one in every four English farms go under.
If this is the case, it will come as no surprise for those who have read the 2005 Treasury/Defra ‘Future of the CAP’ report and later documents produced by successive UK governments, all of which – irrespective of the party or parties holding government – give similar messages about slashing farm support, moving to ‘payments for delivering public goods’ and liberalising food trade with non-EU countries.
While the majority of the Defra consultation rightly focuses on English policies, the general direction of travel in Wales can hardly be described as radically different, with payments for delivering public goods also at the core – and while the Welsh Government has a welcome objective to ‘keep our land managers on the land’, the more pessimistic might argue key elements of the English and Welsh policies simply have different flavoured sugar coatings.
There is only one way of really gauging whether such pessimism is well-founded, symptomatic of a lack of ambition or plain old paranoia, and that is to look through the sugary statements to the facts and figures which lie at the heart of the matter.
Whether they are in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, farmers need to see estimates of the actual financial impacts of proposed post-Brexit policies on individual farms, regions, sectors and supply chains, including detailed case-studies of impacts for randomly selected businesses.
Only that way can they assess whether to believe doomsday messages about families leaving the land in droves, or rosy images of health, harmony and world peace.
Sterling work analysing impacts of different trade agreements and simplistic changes to farm support has already been done by FAPRI, AHDB, HCC and others, and those reading the Defra paper might want to cross-reference proposals against the figures in those reports.
But such work has only scratched the surface, and proposals to introduce divergence between the four UK nations’ farming policies; and between those of our main competitors on a scale not seen for decades deserve scrutiny and analysis to the nth degree by armies of rural economists.
And enough common sense on the part of readers to know a dodgy dossier when they see one.