‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’ is Defra’s consultation paper on agricultural and environmental policy after the UK’s secession from the European Union. It was launched in February with a deadline for responses of 8th May. Along with many others across the country, I have been working on a response, both for the Conservative Rural Forum, formerly the Conservative Rural Affairs Group, and the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.
It is a critical document in that it will be used to shape farm and countryside policy for many years to come. And yet it has some shocking omissions. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Neil Parish MP, described it as ‘woefully lacking on anything to do with proper food production’. The emphasis is very much on environmental protection, animal health and welfare and natural capital. The phrase ‘the payment of public money for the provision of public goods’ or some variation occurs repeatedly throughout the paper.
It is clear that direct payments will be phased out during an ‘agricultural transition’ period, probably five years. During this time, direct payments to farmers will be reduced to free up funds for other schemes, particularly pilots for a new environmental land management scheme. This will be achieved by capping payments and the consultation asks whether this should apply to all farmers or just those that receive the largest payments and whether it should be regressive.
It is not clear what form the new environmental land management scheme will take but it will be broader than the current Countryside Stewardship Scheme. It will, for example, include measures to improve soil structure and fertility and possibly animal health and welfare. There is also an intention to make it far less bureaucratic than the current scheme and easier to participate. The consultation invites respondents to choose three from a list of options and put them in order of priority. This is a futile exercise as all are important and priority will vary according to the circumstances. For example, clean water might be a top priority in the West Country but pollinators in the arable east.
It is claimed that leaving the CAP presents great opportunities to improve farm productivity but there is little detail on how that might be achieved. The emphasis for innovation is on electronic data collection and robotics to promote precision farming. The ‘Hand-Free Hectare’ research programme at Harper Adams University, in which a crop of barley has been grown entirely by robotic machinery and drones without a human setting foot in the field, is one of the case studies highlighted in the paper.
Yet there is hardly any coverage of biotechnology. There is a passing reference to biopesticides and encouraging natural predators as an alternative to chemicals and there is a single mention of gene editing. The research undertaken in this country at establishments such as Rothamsted leads the world but we have yet to reap the rewards. The exploitation of biotechnology is the surest way to improve farm productivity yet the Government ignores the potential.
This may be partly due to uncertain trading relations. The European Union remains implacably opposed to genetic modification so espousing such technology might restrict our ability to sell our produce to member states. The section on international trade is brief and superficial, not surprisingly as the Government seems to have little idea of what can be achieved. The aim is to have a ‘frictionless’ trade arrangement with the EU, effectively a customs union, whilst having the freedom to negotiate bilateral deals with other countries. Once the Government accepts that facing both ways is simply not possible, we will get greater clarity on what the future might hold.
At least twice in the document is the claim that food prices will fall as a result of freer trade after Brexit. Equally, it is stressed that we have the highest standards of health and welfare in the world and that these standards must be maintained. Again, these two objectives seem incompatible as lower prices can only be achieved by importing goods produced at lower standards such as hormone fed beef and chicken washed in chlorinated water from the United States, both of which are banned in the EU. There is a hint that English farmers might be paid a grant for the higher standards to enable them to compete with cheap imports but this is another example of muddled thinking and policy not thought through.
No doubt, Defra will receive hundreds of responses containing a broad spectrum of views so there must be some doubt about the value of the exercise. The emphasis on aspects such as natural capital and animal welfare reflects those on Government Committees such as Dieter Helm and Lord Krebs as well as the lobby groups that have the greatest access to Michael Gove and his team.
Nevertheless, despite the omissions and shortcomings, it is a fairly comprehensive review of the options. Indeed, there is a compendium of evidence alongside the consultation document which is as good a source of factual information as I have come across. Once the responses have been analysed, the Agriculture Bill will be published in the autumn and will, no doubt, be subject to amendment on its passage through Parliament. Only then will we know the full shape of the policy that will replace the CAP.