Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Where do we go from here?

Britain, or more specifically England and the devolved administrations, now need to think about what sort of domestic agricultural policy they want to have outside the European Union. I do not think that the decision to leave will be good for agriculture and the food industry more generally, but we now need to move on. Talk of a second referendum is in my view a distraction.

Of course, at this stage, we do not know what shape Britain's future relationship with the European Union will be. However, as a working hypothesis, I am assuming that we will have a domestic agricultural policy and that, hopefully, there will be no tariff barriers against British agricultural exports such as sheepmeat.

It is an opportunity to re-think what the objectives of a domestic agricultural policy should be, and which policy instruments could best achieve those objectives. However, there are many other items on the Government's agenda and agriculture is not likely to be their top priority, just as it was very much a secondary issue in the campaign outside farming areas.

Path dependency theory would suggest that the most likely outcome in terms of subsidies is a scaled down version of the single farm payment. I say scaled down because there are already considerable pressures on public expenditure and the economy is likely to grow more slowly than it would otherwise have done in the short to medium term following Brexit.

In an ideal world, farming as an economic activity would not be subsidised. However, we are faced with volatile prices and for many farms the subsidy payments make the difference between running at a profit and a loss. There are food security and environmental arguments for not reducing the total area farmed.

One could return to deficiency payments which made up the difference between the market price and a target or guaranteed price. However, the expenditure involved is unpredictable which means that they do not find favour with the Treasury as a policy instrument.

There are a series of difficult questions to be faced. For example, do we want to concentrate subsidies more on marginal upland farms which make an important contribution to landscape? The counter argument is that efficient arable farms would be disadvantaged in terms of competitors elsewhere in Europe if they did not receive similar subsidies.

There are also difficult questions about how the horticultural sector is to secure the unskilled or semi-skilled labour it needs for planting and harvesting? Could we and should we revive a version of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS)?

What we certainly need is a debate about what sort of domestic agricultural policy we could and should have in terms of both objectives and policy instruments.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What would Brexit mean for British farms?

My last contribution to the referendum debate: Brexit and British farms

It has already been condemned by one commentator as a piece of agit prop, but we think that our report represented an honest appraisal of the evidence and that it is difficult to see clear gains for British agriculture from Brexit.

If there is a Brexit decision, hopefully we will have a thorough debate about the objectives of a domestic agricultural policy and the policy instruments that can best achieve them, but the pressure of events will probably dictate otherwise.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Consequences of Brexit for UK agriculture

This article summarises a contribution I made to a recent edition of EuroChoices on the consequences of Brexit for UK agriculture, along with summaries of contributions by Alan Matthews and Alan Swinbank: Brexit uncertainties

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The need for a Common Sustainable Food Policy

An authoritative and informative survey of the CAP by Alison Bailey, Tim Lang and Victoria Shoen concludes with a call for change and the formulation of a Common Sustainable Food Policy: Common Food Policy

Whatever else the referendum debate has done, it has stimulated some excellent work on the future direction of policy.

Deficiency payments unlikely to return

Writing in The Spectator Matthew Parris cites as one of his six arguments for Remain that 'The EU good has been good for farmers and good for the countryside.' It's quite unusual to see agriculture mentioned in the general debate.

He then goes on to say 'Leaving the EU, the UK would probably have to revert to pre-membership system of "deficiency payments" to support farming. It was a costly, ill-controlled nightmare which the Treasury hated.' That's one good reason why it won't come back.

Deficiency payments do at least take some account of market prices. The problem is that the guaranteed price, with farmers paid the gap between that and the market price, was often set too high as a result of lobbying.

Path dependency theory suggests that what we are most likely to get is a scaled down version of the basic payment (formerly single farm payment). In the event of a Brexit, what we really need is a debate about what the objectives of a domestic agricultural policy should be and which policy instruments could best achieve them. However, we are unlikely to get it. Expediency and rushed decision-making is likely to prevail.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Is CAP beneficial for UK?

Alan Greer of the University of the West of England has written a particularly good contribution to the referendum debate in relation to agriculture for the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Agriculture, Food and Rural Policy. He covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space.

He notes that there is at least consensus about what the key issues are. Much of the debate reflects disagreement about whether or not the CAP is beneficial to the UK.

Looking at the views of the farmers, he says that the evidence is contradictory. However, the Farmers Weekly poll he refers to was based on self-selection rather than a sample. Supporters of Brexit are more likely to respond. I would place more reliance on the NFU poll.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Single market is key for agriculture

The importance of the single market to agriculture was emphasised by Martin Haworth, deputy director-general of the NFU, in a presentation earlier today at a conference in London organised by the UK in a Changing Europe programme. Subsidies to farmers were not the most important issue. 65 to 70 per cent of agricultural exports from the UK went to Europe and there was no other alternative. He also noted that the EU had over fifty trade agreements with third countries.

The uncertainty inherent in the Article 50 process was of itself damaging and the CBI had estimated that it could lead to a fall in GDP of 0.75 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

UK agriculture required 20,000 - 25,000 seasonal workers and there were another 35,000 full-time EU workers in agriculture. Analysis by Oxford University of the effects of a point system showed that 96 per cent of the workers would not get through.

Governments of other EU member states showed more sympathy with agriculture. Britain was a more urban society than most of the rest of Europe. He noted, 'I get much more access, interest and sympathy in Brussels.'

Farming formed part of a food chain and virtually the whole chain was in favour of staying in the EU. Food manufacturers would have to consider relocating in the event of Brexit. The catering industry was highly dependent on migrant labour.

He had not heard a credible argument on agriculture that suggested we would be better off leaving.

Responding to questions he said that the Ciolos reform had not offered a strategic vision of agriculture, but was a tactical attempt to green the CAP to attract more support. The division between Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 had been blurred.

Britain in the EU had been sullen and budget obsessed and had never punched with the weight we should have done.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, said that going around the country food issues had been raised relatively rarely. However, she occasionally heard the demand 'We must take control of our fish' which created the vision of a fish swimming round with a passport tucked under its fin. We now had a reasonably sustainable fisheries policy that took account of the biological capacity of the ocean. The fact that we had been able to reform the CFP raised hopes for the reform of the CAP.

What is very clear is that fishers want to get out of the EU, in contrast to the more divided views of farmers: Fishermen and the EU

As for the referendum debate, it had degenerated into a Tory leadership contest masquerading as a EU referendum debate.

Big data could be the next big thing

'Big data' could foster the next wave of agricultural innovation, but there are some impediments that arise from the nature of the industry. Developing low cost measurement capabilities is key: Innovation