John Randall: Next PM must secure benefits of post-Brexit farm reform

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Lord Randall was MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip until 2015, and is a former environment adviser to Theresa May.

Earlier this month, both leadership campaigns took place in Devon and, as is tradition when the media circus ventures west, the spotlight briefly turned to farm policy.

Such an important policy area, covering the work that forms the backbone of our rural economy and is essential to our food security, should not be relegated to a fleeting regional concern – to the credit of both presidential candidates. clearly indicating that agriculture was a central issue for them.

Both had sensible things to say, and it was particularly heartening to see a commitment to continuing the post-Brexit agricultural transition.

This transition from the old EU agricultural subsidy system to a “public money for public goods” approach for farmers through the Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) has made the has come under occasional attack in recent months as somehow anti-conservative. , and harmful to food production.

No load stands up. The changes we see epitomize good, pragmatic Conservative policy and are key to seeing more British food on our shelves in the decades to come.

Unlike Lord Hannan (writing on the site a few weeks ago), I wholeheartedly agree with the leadership candidates, the NFU and environmental groups that having more high quality British food sold and appreciated in Great Britain is a very good thing.

The agricultural transition designed to ensure this has the potential to be a huge leap forward from the previous system. The old support for farmers under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was synonymous with waste and inefficiency, with farmers effectively being paid according to the amount of land they owned.

The system was like paying someone to be in the office, not for the work they do. It entrenched the status quo in place of innovation and rewarded large landowners at the expense of small family farms.

Rightly, the May and Johnson governments used the opportunity offered by Brexit to break free from this failed bureaucratic approach, in place of a new UK system that most supported the farmers with the best returns.

Good environmental returns are the most beneficial for agriculture. Reaching net zero is not good for agriculture; it is a prerequisite for UK agriculture to continue as we know it.

In the words of the government’s Food Security Report 2021, “the greatest medium to long-term risk to UK domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures such as soil degradation, the quality of water and biodiversity”.

The report explains how environmental pressures are already affecting agricultural production, with UK wheat yields 7% below average in 2018 and 17% below average in 2020, both due to “unusual weather conditions associated with climate change”. ”.

When you add in other growing pressures such as soil degradation, which is estimated to cause UK farmers losses of around £1.2billion each year, and the continued loss of pollinator species Essential to arable farming, it’s becoming clear that the biggest threat to getting more British food on the shelves – and more importantly keeping it – is environmental.

Paying farmers for public goods, such as climate change mitigation and improved soil health, is an investment in food security. This careful and forward-looking reform has been the cornerstone of the agricultural transition since Brexit and is expected to remain so until the planned completion date of the transition in 2027.

This approach also offers support to farmers here and now. Rising prices for chemical fertilizers have led to higher farming costs, adding an estimated £160m to farmers’ bills. With most chemical fertilizers dependent on complex global supply chains, these cost pressures are likely to worsen.

Agricultural transition offers a way out of this cost spiral, by improving soil health to reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and by making smarter use of cover crops and organic fertilizers to maximize productivity while minimizing waste. environmental impact.

Likewise, environmental agricultural measures, such as increasing on-farm tree planting, provide new and diversified sources of income for farmers through carbon offset programs, without compromising food production. Rather than the wolf-infested caricature of “rewilding” sometimes presented by the press, the case studies of active farmers involved in the Conservation Farming Network present a much more accurate picture of environmental farming; innovative farming practices that work with nature to increase farm profits.

The Brexit-born agricultural transition, ensuring food security and supporting farmers is unsurprisingly popular with Conservative voters. Polls last month show the highest level of support for the ELMS from Conservative supporters, with just 11% opposing the abandonment of the EU farming system. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss should take notice and move forward with the pioneering post-Brexit course being piloted by May and Johnson.

If completed, the agricultural transition will ensure Britain’s food security, cementing a key benefit of Brexit for farmers – and the country that depends on them.

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