What is the future for Britain’s agriculture and countryside?

  • Written by  Felicity Challinor
  • Published in UK
What is the future for Britain’s agriculture and countryside? Matt Gibson
21 Jul
2016
With the future of Britain’s agriculture and environment now in the hands of Andrea Leadsom, various groups have aired views on what should happen next

During Theresa May’s first cabinet reshuffle, her at-one-stage rival for the Prime Minister job, Andrea Leadsom, was announced as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Among Leadsom’s responsibilities she, along with ministers at Defra and relevant organisations, will have to devise a plan to ensure the needs of British farmers and the environment are not ignored as Britain moves forward on exiting the EU.

‘The UK Referendum has shaken the UK geo-political landscape,’ stated Andrea Graham, Head of Policy Services for the National Farmers Union (NFU). ‘But this does offer a unique opportunity to reshape the UK’s agricultural, trade and environmental policies’.

‘For good or ill, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has shaped land management for over 40 years,’ says Shaun Spiers, chief executive at Campaign to Protect Rural England. According to the NFU, in 2015 UK farmers received £2.4billion through the CAP’s direct payments, and 55 per cent of UK total farming income still comes from CAP support.

The UK Referendum does offer a unique opportunity to reshape the UK’s agricultural, trade and environmental policies

The EU’s CAP was established in 1957 with the aim of raising food production levels across Europe, keeping food prices stable and fair and maintaining farmer’s incomes. With the initial policy leading to over-production, early reforms saw the introduction of quotas and the MacSherry reforms in 1992 led to attempts to create a less intensive and more environmentally-friendly type of farming; with payments given to farmers who ‘set-aside’ ten per cent of their land.

The early 2000s saw the introduction of Single Farm Payments and rewards for particular land use. During the next decade the Environmental Stewardship grants were introduced.

At present, it is uncertain what will replace CAP, but a Defra spokesman told Geographical that: ‘The Secretary of State is looking forward to working with the industry and the public to develop new proposals that support our agricultural industry as we leave the EU.’

(Image: Anna Levan)(Image: Anna Levan)

Given the importance of CAP income support, concerns have arisen that farmers will receive less funding following Brexit. Should they be worried? Defra has said that farming support payments now need to be looked at very carefully. The NFU is among those who are keen to ensure that any new farm payments mirror those seen under CAP.

When campaigning for Brexit, George Eustice, the Minister of State for Defra, said: ‘Could we find the money to spend £2billion on farming and the environment? Of course we could. Would we? Without the shadow of a doubt.’

Eustice also offers a glimpse at what could happen next. He is said to favour Canadian-style insurance schemes, saying that the best way to enhance agriculture profitability is ‘through crop insurance and grant aid to get the most modern technology on farms.’ He praises the way the scheme ‘naturally rewards farmers who are putting money on the line to produce food.’

Hugh Maynard (owner of the Canadian agricultural consultants – Qu’anglo Communications and Consulting) told FG Insight: ‘Initially, it is a good deal for farmers when they set up the accounts with bonus payments’.

However, Mr Maynard fears that prolonged drops in markets or dramatic weather-related problems could result in farmers not having the money to put into the fund when they need the return the most.

Could we find the money to spend £2billion on farming and the environment? Of course we could. Would we? Without the shadow of a doubt

In a recent press release Stephen Wyrill, The National Chairman of the Tenant Farmer’s Association, gave his view on what Britain’s new domestic agriculture policy should look like. Wyrill calls for the current budget to be spent through three pillars. The first should focus on creating an ‘agri-environment scheme’ which rewards farmers for environmental management – in essence, similar to the CAP’s Environmental Stewardship grant. The second, Wyrill urges, should take the form of an infrastructural grant scheme encouraging the ‘development of farm businesses taking into account economic, social and environmental resilience’.

Wyrill’s third pillar is to use public funding to ‘promote British farm products’ through market research, public procurement of British food and ‘beneficial export markets for our farm products’.

Nevertheless, NFU President Meurig Raymond says that ‘it is vital that British farming is profitable and remains competitive, it is the bedrock of the food industry – Britain’s largest manufacturing sector’.

(Image: Stocker1970)(Image: Stocker1970)

On another note, many are equally concerned over what lies ahead for the conservation of our environment. Campaigners are concerned that Andrea Leadsom may cut rules protecting wildlife. EU regulations, although sometimes controversial, have resulted in increases in water quality, protection of potentially over-fished species and cleaner air.

However, a government spokesman has said that, although policy changes are difficult to predict, long-term nature protection was expected to proceed.

Shaun Spiers believes that ‘we should expect to see a much greater emphasis on restoring nature, safeguarding our precious landscapes and supporting farmers to care for their land.’

There will be one mighty battle if the government uses Brexit to try to reduce standards on the environment

David Nussbaum, head of WWF-UK, takes a more concerned stance stressing how the environment has benefited from EU laws. He admits that ‘there will be one mighty battle if the government uses Brexit to try to reduce standards on the environment.’

A WWF-UK spokesman told Geographical that ‘a healthy environment matters to everyone, failure to protect it would come with a high political cost [and a] huge outcry’ from many different groups and organisations.

We are undoubtedly in a period of uncertainty, according to the NFU, with a number of areas of vital importance to farmers and the environment up in the air. Understandably the negotiations will take some time to deliver, but it stresses that early commitment is vital to ensure British farming and the environment are not disadvantaged.

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