Not only do farmers produce food, they manage nearly 3/4 of these islands for the paltry cost to the taxpayer of less than £1 per citizen per week (£48 per year).
And yet, many farmers feel that they're heading for the edge of a cliff. Despite a majority of farmers voting to leave the European Union, producers fear the end of the financial support they rely on to supplement the distorted market that the CAP has created. A significant structural deficit now exists between the real cost of food and the price paid by consumers.
Farming needs a new deal. But, so too does the national community it serves.
While support for British farming is reasonably high, most people see farm payments as a subsidy for the next flash Land Rover. Most people don't know that for many farms the basic farm payment is the difference between existence and bankruptcy. It's no coincidence that on average one farmer commits suicide every week.
So, let's put this financial support into context. Forty eight quid is the same as it costs to join the RSPB (£48/year), and rather less than membership of the National Trust (£64.80).
In terms of government spending agriculture is right at the bottom of the league table. In fact, just the cost of administrating central government is £185 per citizen per year. Based on the same analysis (with UK population calculated at 65m), we spend £2,138 per citizen per year on health (£139bn/year), £1,292 each on education (£84bn), £569 on defence (£37bn), £461 on public safety and police (£30bn), £169 on culture (11bn) - and then, right at the bottom, we spend £48 on agriculture (£3.1bn).
And yet, farmers deliver some of the most extraordinary countryside anywhere in the world - our grass lands, hill sides, tree belts, river banks, and hedgerows. The vast sweeping expanses of the Cambridgeshire fens, the drama of the Lake District, the rocky expanses of Snowdonia, the marshy splendour of the Scottish glens, and the rugged coastlines all around our unique islands.
Sadly however, our countryside is in dramatic decline. The 2016 State of Nature report recorded that over the last 50 years, 56% of species have declined, while 15% are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether. In 2014, scientists warned that there were only 100 harvests left in our farm soils. In addition, we must transform our food systems to cut carbon, methane, and nitrogen pollution, improve food quality and reduce obesity, protect communities from extreme weather by re-shaping our agricultural landscape, and improve welfare and reduce anti-microbial resistance by getting farm animals out of intensive systems.
So there is another serious structural deficit. This time between the natural assets we are plundering, and the assets that we need to survive.
We are paying rock bottom rates for the management of our countryside, and when you scratch the surface, it shows - farms are close to the edge of economic viability - and the quality of our natural assets is in free fall. While there are remarkable pockets of ethical and environmental excellence, much of mainstream farming policy and practice is driving itself and nature towards an unprecedented precipice.
Farmers fear that public payments will be culled, but instead we must reform them, and commit to paying them for the next generation. For decades public policy has pushed farming to drive nature to perilous tipping points, and so government must now take brave and bold decisions, and motivate farmers to restore the countryside so that it will continue to feed everyone forever.
We need a new deal for agriculture. One that maintains the critical safety net for farm businesses for the next generation, but one which has public interest and accountability at its heart. One which supports farmers, but which avoids market distortion, and which empowers consumers to reward high quality, higher welfare, sustainable food.
Fortunately, we have a historic opportunity to arrest the decline in our soils, air quality, biodiversity, welfare standards, and water quality. To put our farmers on a sound financial footing for the future. To ensure our natural capital is restored and maintained for the public good. To pay off the rising debt to nature, reducing risk thresholds, and ensuring rich and robust food systems for the future.
A new deal for agriculture
When we leave the European Union public funds should be re-directed to pay for public goods and environmental services to help preserve and restore Britain’s natural capital.
To achieve this, the current system of farm payments should be axed and replaced by a new farm contract, directed and supported by regional stakeholders and local citizens.
We are calling for:
- A national policy framework based on environmental, ethical, and economic sustainability
- A regional mechanism to agree local priorities with countryside stakeholders
- Individual farm contracts assessed by private schemes, which are published online so that ordinary people can contribute to monitoring.
This blueprint provides the bare bones of the new deal that citizens and farmers so desperately need. It will help restore and maintain our natural capital. And it will help guarantee public support for the next generation of farmers.