Wednesday, 15 February 2017

It's time to scrap production-related farm payments

Farmwel recently provided evidence to the House of Lords, Brexit: agriculture inquiry.  Central to our submission was our call to change the basis of UK farm payments.

Public payments provide essential support for farming at a time when farm-gate prices are brutally removed from the true costs of production.  But the public are paying for the wrong things.

Acreage payments should continue, but they should be used to protect wildlife, environment, farm animals, and biodiversity - not to fund production.

Each day this winter I've walked past a water-logged 20-acre field which grazes 40 ewes.  In the summertime the field is usually topped for silage.  There's no rotation.  On two sides there are patchy hedges that have just been savagely cut to chest height.  To all intents and purposes, this is a grass monoculture of very little real value.  This needs to change.

Farm payments should fund eco-services.  We should leave the natural laws of supply and demand to reward food production at appropriate levels, and instead public payments should fund public goods, like biodiversity management, greenhouse gas reduction, flood protection, and farm animal welfare - things the market has no means of rewarding.

In this way, my neighbour would be paid to set up land sharing on his farm.  We'd see the same levels of food production (if the market existed) - but there'd be outstanding outcomes for nature and farm animal welfare.  Instead of a mono-culture, imagine a paddock grazing system, perhaps with additional hedging to help paddock separation, to improve land productivity, and carbon sequestration.  Trees could be planted at the centre and at the edges, and irrigation could be introduced to collect and preserve rain water to improve land resilience during long dry periods.  Additional flora would provide the sheep with shelter from storms and hot sun, and water management would help reduce the potential for parasites such as fluke.  Grass and soil quality, biodiversity, carbon capture, water management, and farm animal health and welfare outcomes would all improve.

This should be the model for all farming - and Brexit offers the chance to make it happen in Britain; to lock in long term food security, built on a bedrock of environmental, economic, and ethical sustainability.  The Great Repeal Bill should transfer EU laws to Britain, retaining key farm animal welfare and environmental protections - but, alongside this, a Food Security and Sustainability Bill should be introduced, with payments reform at its centre.

Acreage payments should be maintained, but the ‘Greening’ portion of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should be abolished.  Instead, environmental and ethical requirements should become the basis of all acreage payments.  These should be dependent on the delivery of public goods.  The use of land to produce food would be strongly preferred, but not required – meaning that food production itself would become more dependent on the market.  Land used for the production of food that failed to meet the required environmental and ethical outcomes would not receive public support.

Acreage payments were introduced in 2003 so that farmers had more freedom to respond to market demands, but farmers are only eligible for these payments if their land is kept in agricultural production.  There's a strong argument that these production payments are incompatible with WTO rules.  By contrast, the acreage payments Farmwel has proposed, based on ethical and environmental outcomes, would be wholly compatible with WTO Green Box rules.

The Farmwel project is informed by the experience of FAI Farms.

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