As has been the case since the referendum way back in 2016 we are fed plenty of government rhetoric from the likes of DEFRA minister George Eustice about how, post-Brexit, farmers are going to ‘stop being price takers and start getting a fairer share of the cake’, but what evidence is there in the Bill that this might be true?
As we all know, central to the Bill is a shift away from the BPS to agri-environmental payments. This is certainly a welcome move as dishing out taxpayer money based on what acreage individual farmers farm, whether they produce any food or do any useful environmental work on their land, was always madness. But, that said, unless the change away from direct payments is handled with great care it will ruin a large number of farmers.
The government says that the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in BPS payments will be ring fenced to fund its Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). The risk, of course, is that, as the BPS is withdrawn over the next five to seven years, some farms will qualify for ELMS while others may not.
As for how ELMS will work and what it will pay farmers, the Bill is ludicrously light on any such details. Instead it just states that farmers will be rewarded for ‘public goods’ like improved air and water quality and reduced flooding and soil erosion. Regarding Eustice’s assertion that farmers can look forward to no longer being ‘price takers’ post-Brexit, there is scant sign of that in the Bill. UK farmers will be required to adhere to ambitious animal welfare and environmental regulations and there will be a new Environment Bill to make sure that there is no slippage from existing EU standards. But, while such standards are being raised, the Bill makes no guarantees that cheap food imports, produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards abroad, will not be allowed into the UK. The NFU has written to DEFRA demanding assurances about production standards for imported food and we can only hope that the government can be persuaded to shift its position.
Hardly talked about but perhaps most important of all, we are still in the dark about what trade tariffs will apply to food imports post-Brexit. At the moment, UK farmers are protected by an impressive array of EU tariffs that massively increase the price of imported lamb, beef, milk products and grains. But if Ukrainian wheat, Canadian oilseed rape, Russian oats and Australian barley are all allowed into the UK tariff-free how does that stop me from being a price taker, Mr Eustice? Indeed, the prices I will be taking as a British arable farmer post-Brexit are likely to be a lot lower than the ones I’m taking now.