Now that we are heading for departure of the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy we have lived with for decades is it time for a radical re-think of the agri-environment subsidy regime ? The National Trust clearly thinks so, as reported in this article in The Guardian last week.(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/04/national-trust-calls-for-complete-reform-of-british-farm-subsidies)
Director General of the National Trust, Dame Helen Ghosh calls for a fundamental shift in our farm subsidy system, so that public subsidy only pays for public goods, ie environmental benefit over and above food production. Environmental benefits include things like reducing flood risk or pollution of watercourses, protecting soils and storing carbon, boosting biodiversity (for instance birds, butterflies and wildflowers) and enhancing landscapes for rural tourism.
The NFU and CLA’s initial response to this argued that food security is itself a public good, thus farmers should continue to be subsidised for producing food in and of itself. NFU President Meurig Raymond expressed concern that competitiveness of British farming could be undermined if production-based subsidies are axed and worries that we may increasingly have to rely upon imports.
If you want my view this is it: It would seem that with a British exit from the European Union, for all the challenges it has thrown up, we have been handed an opportunity to bring about a radical re-think of the agri-environment regime in the UK. I for one will be very keen to see an existential debate about the very nature of land management subsidies:
Should taxpayers pay food producers more if they grow their crops in a way that protects soil and water resources?
Should we pay /compensate farmers on floodplains upstream of our towns and cities to accept losses of their crops and inundation of grasslands in times of flood?
Should we expect our uplands to be managed in the ways which most effectively protect peatland carbon stores and deliver biodiversity, soil and water resource management?
Should farmers who manage marginal land just below the moorland line which maximize the populations of breeding waders receive higher payments than those who maximize livestock or fodder production?
Should we expect all farmers to meet minimum standards of resource protection, biodiversity and heritage management?
In a blog post on the Farming Futures website, Prof Dave Styles of Bangor University dissects in more detail what Dame Helen’s proposals might mean in practice and shows we must think carefully, given the practical difficulties of quantifying ‘Ecosystem Services’ http://www.farmingfutures.org.uk/blog/payment-ecosystem-services-valid-objective-post-brexit-farm-subsidies. While there is much to commend the changes she proposes there are aspects of the current agri-environment schemes, which themselves have been worked out at great length, and try to encompass all eventualities (uplands / lowlands, arable / pastoral, marginal land / the most productive arable) which do indeed pay farmers for carrying out measures demonstrated to offer ecosystem benefits. Prof Styles puts it thus, “…as Dame Helen Ghosh suggests, there are opportunities to better target post-Brexit farm subsidies towards the delivery of environmental goods and services. But there is also a considerable risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
What I think he means here is that Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES for short) undoubtedly has an important role to play in the future but is still in relative infancy and to a degree there is also the problem of adopting this unilaterally, while other parts of the global food production economy do not impose new regimes.
One thing is clear I think. Change cannot be overnight and I agree with Dame Helen’s view that a transition period of some years’ duration will be needed to wean our farming economy off its long-established reliance upon the current system of subsidies, if that is the road we go down.