Support of Farming after Britain leaves the EU

Some years ago on the “Farming Today” programme the Cambridgeshire farmer and journalist, Oliver Walston, candidly admitted that the Single Farm Payment was quite unnecessary to sustain his profitable farm in East Anglia but it was very nice to receive a large sum of EU money for not very much.

By contrast with East Anglia it’s very different up against the Pennines in East Lancashire where our climate is such that all we can grow is grass. Historically most of our farmland was used for milk production to feed the nearby industrial towns. When refrigeration and other preservative techniques freed the market from the need for very local production our milk producers were sustained by deficiency payments and the Milk Marketing Board. Now, even with the Single Farm Payment, our farmers cannot compete with imports and the result is that huge areas of farmland are occupied by hobby farmers, horses etc. There’s hardly any proper farming where I live. In consequence what was once productive grassland is going to waste through lack of maintenance, particularly drainage. It will take years to restore this land to good heart.

The aim of Britain’s agricultural policy ought to be to maximise our capacity to produce food, even when it’s cheaper to buy it abroad, as a precaution against the possibility that our imports are cut-off. That happened to us in the two World Wars when we came uncomfortably close to starvation. Nowadays I think the greater threat is that our nation runs out of credit so that we are unable to afford to import when we have to compete with emerging nations for limited supplies.

The original EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system of production subsidies and intervention purchasing, didn’t work because it led to over production and huge surpluses. Pre-CAP, from 1947-1972, the British policy of deficiency payments was much better – where farm produce was sold at unprofitable prices, there was a subsidy to make up the deficiency. This kept farmers in business and land in production while ensuring that they only produced what they could sell, as efficiently as possible.

I think UK policy after Britain leaves the EU should be to restore the deficiency payment system. This won’t suit grain barons in East Anglia because they’re inherently profitable and so they’ll get no subsidy at all, but why should they? There’s no benefit to the taxpayer in paying subsidy where it’s not needed.

It has been said that we couldn’t reintroduce deficiency payment because of our obligations under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.  A little ingenuity would help.  If we called the deficiency payments land maintenance payments, made a year in advance but calculated on past prices and product, we could achieve the same thing, but produce food and tidy landscapes.

Also, there should be an emergency policy of bringing farms back in to production by cutting red tape and the regulatory cost of producing food. It ought to be that a farmer with a few cows ought to be able to produce and sell his milk without the huge cost of a modern dairy and so-on. It’s time to cut back on expensive environmental, animal welfare and food safety regulation and instead concentrate our efforts on being able to feed our population.

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