Sunday, July 10, 2016

'Time to cut our greedy farmers down to size?'

I am required to be positive when I address the Future Farmers of Yorkshire on Wednesday at the Great Yorkshire Show and I will do my best. When I was going round talking to farmers before the referendum, many of them were confident that there would be plenty of money to carry on paying subsidies at much the same level, presumably from the alleged £350m a week that was going to the EU, and was in any case spent many times over.

The smarter farmers realised that there were a lot of political forces ranged against them and they would no longer have political back up from farmers elsewhere in the EU.

An opening shot was fired in The Times yesterday with an article by Emma Duncan, who is apparently the editor of 1843 magazine. She starts with a good joke about the recent headline on the NFU website, 'Brexit may not be beneficial to UK farmers' which reminded her of Emperor Hirohito's surrender statement in 1945, 'The war has not necessarily developed to Japan's advantage.'

She starts with a critique of the amount spent on the CAP as a proportion of EU spending and levels of tariff protection. Both in my view are higher than can be readily justified.

So far, so good. But then she apparently wants to remove all of this and 'let our farmers compete in world markets just like our manufacturers'. The problem is that most other countries subsidise and/or protect their farmers. The clear exception is New Zealand which has a very favourable climate for farming. Australia is not as clear a case as it appears as drought payments (no doubt justified) have been used as a less transparent form of payment to farmers.

If we cut subsidies, she says that food prices will fall (not necessarily if there is a sharp fall in domestic production). Land prices will fall and more will be released for housing (do we want the better quality land to be used in this way?) Some land will return to wilderness which will be a good thing (scrub and bracken is not good to look at and not good for biodiversity). The only losers will be the farmers, although she thinks that one problem is the strength of the NFU as a lobby.

Farmers do need to develop an evidence based case for support, and also about whether subsidies should be redeployed. Remember that we will now have an English agricultural policy as farming is a devolved matter which has hitherto constrained by CAP. I would expect the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to be willing to pay more to support agriculture and rural areas (the Welsh case is less clear).

What we do need is a debate that is based on policy objectives and identifying the best means of pursuing them.

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