Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Glyphosate gets a reprieve

The controversial herbicide glyphosate which is used by Monsanto in its Roundup products has been given a reprieve. It has been the subject of a battle between agrochemical and farming interests and environmentalists. However, the EU has given it a five year licence after Germany changed its position.

German environment minister the SDP's Barbara Hendricks has been against renewal of the licence while Christian Schmidt, the conservative agriculture minister has been in favour. Schmidt decided to change the vote from abstain to in favour, Hendricks accusing him of acting behind her back.

Up to now the Christian Democrats have been constrained by their 'Jamaica' coalition negotiations with the Greens, who are against the herbicide, but these have now broken down.

After Germany changed its vote, and following some tweaking to the wording of the licence, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland followed suit and switched their vote from abstain, allowing the EU committee for plants, animals, feed and food to give its approval for another five years by qualified majority vote.

Despite their apparent victory, farming organisations are concerned that renewal was only for five years rather than the 15 years they think was justified.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

NFU 'disappointed' with Budget

The NFU is 'disappointed' with the Budget which it saw as offering little to help farmers to prepare for life outside the EU or to help rural communities more generally: Budget response

The NFU should not be that surprised at the urban focus of the budget. The more general question that arises is whether tax reliefs are a better policy instrument than direct support payments.

If we gave farmers more tax allowances, it would not alter their behaviour in any way in accordance with policy objectives, but it would give them an additional financial cushion against the effects of Brexit.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Big Blue goes for green farm policy

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.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The pros and cons of land management contracts

Talking to farmers recently, it is clear that quite a few of them see merit in the idea of land management contracts put forward by the CLA. This 'would be a legal agreement between the farmer and the government for provision of goods and services that the market doesn't pay for but provide valuable benefits to society.' Examples include safeguarding and increasing carbon storage; mitigating or reducing flood risk; creating better connectivity of habitats and species; maintaining the distinctiveness of historic landscapes and heritage; managing soil structures to maintain productive capacity of land for future generations.'

The motivations of the CLA are clear. President Ross Murray states, 'The best retort to accusations that the acreage payment merely rewards the wealthy is to promote a compelling and revolutionary new system based on contract where the farmer or manager is rewarded for public service'.

Policy instruments that are envisaged are:

  • Multi-channel advice to increase adoption of new technology and practices
  • Business skills development and encouraging collaboration
  • Capital grants, loans and tax incentives for investment in infrastructure, equipment and buildings, farmer led research and collaboration
  • Support for new entrants and succession and retirement planning support [this is an under developed area of policy]
  • Promoting UK food in domestic and international markets
  • Resilience funds and compensation for unforeseen events [some might think that was the role of insurance]

There would not be a standard contract. 'Farmers will choose what sort of land management activities are right for them and their rural business ... The importance of specific outcomes will vary across the country ... The land management contract will be locally adaptive'.

This is reasonable enough, but it does raise the question of the transaction costs of negotiating contracts with individual farm businesses with variable payments reflecting the public benefits delivered. The CLA calls for 'simplicity of administration' and 'keeping bureaucracy to a minimum'.

However, public money is involved and accountability is necessary. It is admitted that 'new and existing evidence from mapping' is involved which invariably involves a checking process. Proposed outcomes need to be realistic and there needs to be some means of checking that they have been achieved.

This is an ingenious idea and a good one in principle, but how would it work out in practice?

Friday, November 03, 2017

Post Brexit model could mean major disruption for farmers

Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) has produced a new paper on the implications of Brexit for UK, EU and global agricultural reform: Chatham House

The briefing paper looks at four broad agricultural policy options for the UK after leaving the EU. It considers how these four models might perform in the context of future EU agricultural policy decisions and wider global trends and challenges.

The paper argues that for the UK, only a market-oriented model – aligned and integrated with a more effective commitment to the environment and climate change mitigation – would enable the country to benefit from free trade while keeping the government’s promise to improve the environment for the next generation. Applying such a model in the UK could lower prices for consumers, lift the economy’s productivity and allow for substantial budget savings to support the environment and public finances.

It would mean significant disruption for agricultural producers, and the political challenge of market reform should not be underestimated, but, the paper concludes, implementing a sustainable, market-oriented agricultural policy is a genuine opportunity for UK global leadership outside the EU in the next decade.

It is admitted that, 'A move to a genuinely market-oriented model would result in imports displacing UK products, and the removal of all forms of subsidies would cause some farming operations to fold. While the resulting lower prices would benefit consumers, importing businesses and the economy overall, it would also mean unviable agricultural businesses closing, being taken over or having to reinvent themselves. The livestock sector in particular is vulnerable in this regard, with rural communities, especially upland areas, likely to suffer the most commercially.'