Farming policy debate intensifies

The debate over the future direction of UK farming policy post-Brexit has intensified, with influential conservation bodies putting forward strong views last month on where they believe Government support for the sector should be targeted.

Conservation bodies lead call for more fresh approaches
Conservation bodies lead call for more fresh approaches

While the National Trust emphasised the need to bolster farming's green credentials (see box), the Campaign to Protect Rural England's (CPRE) New Model Farming paper focuses more on its social and health aspects, urging support for small producers including new entrants, nearness to markets and particular support for fresh-produce suppliers, pointing out: "We eat too few fruits and vegetables yet national production has decreased and imports have risen."

On the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) it added: "Only a small proportion rewards farming for its sustainability or benefits to the public," and described as "a further perversity" the fact that it has not directly funded horticultural production, while "many small-scale fruit and vegetable producers have disappeared". It pointed out: "Estimates suggest 80 per cent of the payment goes to the 20 per cent largest businesses, while smallholdings below 5ha are not eligible."

Such direct payments also increase the market value of land, making it more expensive to buy and to rent, it said, concluding that leaving the CAP "presents an opportunity to end what the Natural Capital Committee has called 'perverse subsidies' in farming".

It urged new approaches including "targeting payments to help new horticulture boost sustainable fruit and vegetable production, where the UK has a recognised shortfall", as well as supporting agro-ecological practices such as minimum tillage, cover crops, green manures and agro-forestry.

Making land more available to new entrants "could bring innovation, dynamism and entrepreneurism into the industry". Typically small areas of land "would lend themselves best to horticulture and fruit farms, which benefit at small scale from proximity to local markets". To enable this, it called for "an accessible, comprehensive and transparent register of land holdings for the whole of England", enabling locals to identify unused or underused land. Planning policy should also enable local authorities to "diversify local food growing and processing to supply local markets with fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables".

Any moves to increase production would be "nonsense" without a corresponding effort to cut waste, it said, pointing out that one-third of all food bought, worth £12.5bn a year, is wasted across the food chain. The public needs to reconnect with growing, it added. "We have been divorced from food production. People will understand little of fruit or vegetables if they do not see a variety of crops growing nearby."

But the CPRE's recommendations were greeted with some scepticism by the industry. NFU president Meurig Raymond said: "Missing from the CPRE's vision is food security, which in our view should be considered to be a legitimate political goal and public good alongside the environment."

The union last week began a programme of 50 meetings across the country to determine members' views on post-Brexit farming policy. "We're already seeing farmers joining the NFU to participate in the biggest consultation we've ever held on the industry's future," added Raymond.

Country Land & Business Association president Ross Murray said: "We do not support CPRE's objective of using future farm policy to pursue an agenda about breaking up landownership because it would risk severely undermining investment in productive agriculture and the environment just when it is most needed."

Similarly, Andrew Francis, senior farms manager at East Anglia root vegetable grower Elveden Estate, said size brings advantages in sustainable management. "We are able to manage a very large block of land with a single integrated approach. If that land was split into 20 different blocks, you are going to have 20 people who don't have the same level of involvement or influence."

With more than 4,000ha of farmland, the estate is one of the UK's largest lowland farms and one of the largest beneficiaries of the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), receiving £915,000 in 2014. "These look like big numbers but when you divide it by a big area it is a very small number," said Francis. "I can understand why the CPRE might want to taper (support) according to size, but the main reason for the size is to make commercial agriculture stack up. There is less and less money in what we're doing so as margins tighten the only way to keep being able to make long-term investments is to have viable commercial agriculture."

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward told Horticulture Week: "This is currently the biggest opportunity to determine the future direction of farm support and there will be a rush of policy initiatives seeking to influence that outcome, with CPRE and the National Trust coming at it from a particular angle. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. We should take time to decide what works best and for that we need radical ideas from our own side too."

He added: "We might end up with a menu of options (to support the sector) rather than one size fits all, as with the BPS, and there should be opportunities there for horticulture. Currently there are all sorts of anomalies that we have an opportunity to put right."

But on proposals to make food networks more locally responsive, he said: "We are where we are - 90 per cent of food is bought through the multiples and the pressures on food production will remain." He explained: "It's always healthy to have new entrants, but for everyone who comes in there is another who can't expand. We have to have opportunities through the system. If you only have 10 acres (4ha), it can't be run for commodity production, so at the smaller end you need a model that's not dependent on that."

Rather than direct support for production of "healthier" crops, he said: "We need to put money into research and development of things like varieties and systems." Beyond the current producer organisation scheme (HW, 19 August), he added: "We will need to support capital investment in things like reservoirs to retain some of the billions of gallons of flood water that wash out to sea."

Policy debate - Calls by National Trust and Prince's Countryside Fund

The National Trust has called on the Government to put "the recovery and future resilience of the natural environment" at the heart of any funding system that replaces CAP.

"Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won't pay for but are valued and needed by the public," said the trust's director-general Helen Ghosh in a widely reported speech last month.

She added that this should include "building the fertility and health of the soils on which both nature and production depend".

With some four-million members, the trust is itself one of the country's largest farmland owners, with around 250,000ha farmed by around 2,000 tenants. "In the long run there's no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends," said Ghosh.

Meanwhile, a report by the Prince's Countryside Fund (PCF) has called for greater support for existing small farms, which it said face "very grave challenges".

Its recommendations include greater collaboration and mentoring with other farmers and supply chain partners, supported by local "catalysts" provided by groups such as the PCF itself.

It also called for new housing and other assistance on rural estates to encourage new farm businesses and a raised minimum term for farm business tenancies of 10 years, while local initiatives by social enterprises, local authorities and rural development schemes "should make engagement with small family farmers a strategic priority", it added.

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