Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Michael Gove, has spelled out how farming subsidies will be handled after Brexit, although crucial questions remain.
Julie Liddle examines the salient issues...
The environment secretary has assured farmers that the UK government will guarantee subsidies at present EU levels until the 2022 election, after which there will be a ‘transitional period’.
Speaking at two farmers’ conferences in Oxford in January, Mr Gove said the post-Brexit settlement will see farmers receiving payments for ‘public goods’, including access to the countryside and planting meadows.
Competitive concerns from Parliament and the NFU
Mr Gove has also pledged that standards will not be compromised by Britain leaving the EU, despite a parliamentary report warning that Brexit could threaten UK food security.
Legislators in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology (APPGA) say the government should make certain that farmers are not disadvantaged by trade deals that allow the import of food produced to lower welfare or environmental standards.
These issues were picked up by Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers Union.
Although she applauded incentives to protect the environment, her main concern is future trade deals leaving UK farmers competing against ‘cheaper food produced to lower standards’.
Gove will reward sound environmental practice
Setting out his proposals to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-Brexit, Mr Gove dismissed the CAP as ‘unjust’ and failing to ‘really reward efficiency’.
Under the present payment system UK farmers receive £3bn a year, which is paid out based on the amount of land farmers own.
The government says it will keep present subsidies for three years after Brexit – until 2022 – with an option to continue until 2024, depending on what Mr Gove described as ‘consultation’.
During this period Mr Gove says he will aim to reduce the biggest subsidies, with a cap, or a sliding scale of reductions. This will result in a ‘smooth path’ to a fresh payment system that will ‘use public money for public goods’.
This new system would reward farmers for planting woodland, encouraging wildlife, improving water quality and allowing wildflower meadows to flourish.
Meanwhile, new trade deals with non-EU countries would create fresh and lucrative markets for British farmers.
Mishandled changes could reduce some regions to country parks
This is well and good, but political rhetoric is one thing; negotiating complex trade deals that work for UK farmers, something else entirely.
While there are all sorts of potential changes heading farmers’ way, the only thing we can be certain of is that the devil will be in the detail.
The cost – or loss of income – resulting from any changes to ‘subsidy’ payments must be covered, particularly for farmers who are not in a position, or location to adapt or diversify. They may find it impossible to continue.
On the other hand, those who can raise their financial performance using new found freedoms will be at a significant advantage.
And crucially, legislators must take great care that they don’t take backward steps in maintaining environmental standards.
If it is not managed effectively, the post-Brexit settlement could well lead to higher food prices, more imported cereals and whole agricultural regions that will effectively become country parks.
We shall see.