As far as I can tell the last time the House of Commons discussed agriculture, without having to do so in the context of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) of the European Union, would have been some time circa 1970.
This is set to change. Over the next two years the House of Commons, along with the farming community, the food industry and consumers, will need to debate and decide how, on leaving the EU, we will order food production and farming in the UK. What we decide will have a profound impact on the look of our rural landscape, where our food comes from and how many UK jobs result. Food and drink, including farming, is worth a £108 billion to our economy, so we better not mess it up, the stakes are high.
To work out what our new domestic agriculture policy should look like we have some major questions to answer.
First: to what extent should the taxpayer continue to subsidise British farmers? Theresa May’s government has guaranteed farmers that the existing level of EU subsidy – £3billion a year - will continue until 2020, but after that?
With 55% of UK farm income coming from CAP support it’s hard to see many farmers surviving without some level of subsidy.
Hill farmers can receive as much as 80% of their income in EU payments, making lamb much cheaper for the customer than it otherwise would be but making their future without a hefty subsidy nigh on impossible.
Should we subsidise all farmers or should we cap payments to the richer farmers, as they already do in Wales? Should the most uneconomic farms be simply allowed to fail? Should subsidies be slowly removed after 2020 or removed relatively quickly?
Second: to answer the subsidy issue you need to address the question of how much food should we produce in the UK and how much should we import? Currently we produce around 54% of our needs. We could produce more but to do so we would need to intensify production, which can have unwanted environmental impacts. However, if we were to produce more of our own food we would have shorter supply chains, something that is usually good for the environment.
Third: should farmers have to farm in a way that is good for the environment or should productivity be their overriding target? For instance, under the current CAP payments farmers can receive funding for deliberately not planting crops right up to the edge of their field and instead allow wild strips to develop for the benefit of birds and animals. In a recent YouGov poll 83% of UK respondents said they wanted to see the same or a higher level of wildlife protection in future than under the CAP.
Fourth: what about trees? Our forests do an amazing but hidden job; they absorb C02 the gas responsible for climate change. At a European level somewhere between 10 and 20% of the EU’s carbon emissions are sequestrated by our forests and the timber products they produce. With the battle against climate change far from won there is a lot to be said for planting more trees on marginal agricultural land. Given the likely long term reduction or removal of subsidies to farmers the amount of marginal land will increase, so the opportunity to plant more trees and create new forests will soon arrive.
Fifth and finally: just as trees absorb carbon so do soils and peat. Healthy soils full of fibre and organic matter can significantly boost our work to tackle climate change. They also hold more water so during periods of heavy rainfall run off is slowed and hence the threat of flooding downstream, often in the places where people live, is reduced. Healthy soils need fewer fertilisers, which saves farmers money and results in a reduction of the amount of fertiliser having to be removed from our drinking water, an expense ultimately born by the customer. Consequently it could be argued that any future public subsidy to farmers should be dependent on their creating and maintaining healthy soils.
Hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite for the debate ahead but if you want to sate it, you’ll need a farmer.