Liberal Conservative think tank Big Blue has produced the latest analysis of the future of agricultural support in Britain, A Greener, More Pleasant Land. It's certainly in tune with the emerging conventional wisdom. Read the full report here: Green and pleasant
It sets out a vision for a new market-based commissioning scheme for rural payments after Brexit, which would replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and fund ecosystem services, such as woodland creation, restoration of peatlands and removing invasive plant species. Under the scheme, ‘suppliers’ would bid to supply ecosystem services to paying ‘beneficiaries’ in specific catchments via online market-places. Suppliers would include farmers, landowners, and land managers.
Beneficiaries would include the general public (represented by central, devolved, and local government), private interests (such as water companies, other land managers, and insurers), and other groups (such as conservation NGOs, civil society groups, land trusts, philanthropists, local communities via town and village halls, or crowd funders). Contracts for supplying ecosystem services would pay quarterly based on results, potentially with incentives to encourage performance.
It calls for ensuring that as current CAP subsidies are phased out, public funding for market-based commissioning scheme and means tested livelihood support is phased in pound for pound. It advocates the creation of a single rural payments budget from central government that identifies exactly and merges existing government budgets for production and land management support (under CAP), natural flood management, and payments for ecosystem services. Merging these current expenditures into a single rural payments budget would result in at least £3.1 billion being made available per year. It appears that prices for ecosystem services would be derived through an online market place designed by users for users. Striking a price may not be as straightforward as the paper assumes.
Three forms of income for farmers
The elimination of all production subsidies in agriculture would ensure instead that farmers have three forms of income available to them. The first from the new market-based commissioning scheme for rural payments, the second from a form of means-tested livelihood support, and the third from agricultural produce or other monetisable services sold at market prices without production subsidies. These sources of income are not mutually exclusive.
In my view means-tested livelihood support is a matter for the benefits system and not for specific policies directed at farmers. It seems that these are meant for small farmers, but there is a case for keeping area based payments in some form in marginal upland areas.
All things bright and beautiful
It is claimed that market-based commissioning of rural payments combined with a properly enforced system of environmental regulations, targeted livelihood support (particularly for smaller farmers), and consumer demand for high-quality UK produce will together drive higher environmental standards across the UK.
Senior Associate Fellow Ben Caldecott, who co-wrote the report, says: 'Commissioning ecosystem services efficiently and effectively using the dynamism of market-based approaches will bring significant public benefits, including a more sustainable farming industry, enhanced natural beauty and landscapes, greater biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration, improved natural flood defences, better water quality, better mental and physical health, and better air quality.'
Commenting, Zac Goldsmith MP, member of the Environment Audit Committee, said: 'The biggest opportunity by far [on leaving the EU] is the ability we now have to redesign the way we subsidise rural activity via whatever regime replaces the Common Agriculture Policy, something environmentalists have long dreamed of being able to do. Instead of simply paying people for owning land, no matter what they do to it, we can finally tailor that support to reward good stewardship of the land to boost biodiversity, minimise floods, improve water quality and access, and deliver food security.' Of course, it could be argued that one of the things that the current system does is support food security.
The usual targets
Press commentary on the report has inevitably brought up the £1.6m in subsidies going to Sir James Dyson. In a sense he is fair game, but he has been investing money in his farms and losing money on them.
No one wants to retain blanket area based subsidies in their present form, but we have little practical experience of pricing ecosystem services (there is one public-private scheme covering forests and peat bogs). As it is, area based subsidies represent the difference between profit and loss for most farms, so one has to be careful how one replaces them if one doesn't want to see a forced restructuring of the industry which might hit food production and would certainly disadvantage smaller farmers.