UK farming is likely to be embroiled in a battle for cash as it is pitched against the NHS and other public spending priorities for the first time in 40 years.
Speaking at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, the Prime Minister’s chief policy adviser George Freeman contradicted previous assurances from Ministers that farmers would receive the same amount of subsidy in a post-Brexit era.
He told a meeting organised by the Social Market Foundation the public would want the £3 billion currently spent on farming subsidies each year to go towards hospitals and GPs instead.
Mr Freeman said: “There is quite a big piece of work to be done to explain to the public properly why the British agricultural industry is a key strategic sector for the UK – which I do not think has been explained well.”
However, he said the Government was committed to subsidising farm businesses – highlighting those in the uplands and other vulnerable areas – which ‘would not work without some support’.
Though the Government will continue to make Basic Payment Scheme payments until 2020 and has pledged to fund agri-environment schemes farmers sign up to before the Autumn Statement for their whole duration, there were no formal guarantees on support after that time.
Hinting at a more environmentally-focused subsidy scheme in the future, Farming Minister George Eustice added: “We need to stop talking about this money as subsidy. Farmers do a lot for the environment and the Government should be willing to support them for the work they do that isn’t rewarded by the market.”
CLA president Ross Murray agreed more work needed to be done to generate a wider understanding of the importance of support for farm businesses.
“Government and farmers must work together to create a domestic policy which is more efficient, better tailored to UK needs, provides better bang for the taxpayers’ buck, and delivers better outcomes for the environment,” Mr Murray said.
“We must also work together to show why establishing this fully-funded policy is so important for anyone who wants to eat high-quality, affordable UK food, spend time in the countryside or cares that the environment is well managed for today and for future generations.”
Boosting farm profitability through innovation and new market opportunities would also be key going forward, as would the development of a fairer, balanced supply chain.
Mr Eustice said the Dairy Crest producer organisation (PO), which negotiated collectively on behalf of its members, had been useful in helping farmers get a better price for their milk and he was interested in looking at legislative ways to incentivise growth of other similar organisations.
Alternative models such as franchise farming, contract farming and share farming were also being explored by Defra, which Mr Eustice said could mean farmers ‘would not need a single farm payment’.