This article is part of our special report (Agri-food) life after Brexit.
The UK has promised a greener and more pleasant land after breaking free of the EU’s farming subsidy programme. But some warn that the new plans could leave small farms at a disadvantage and leave British farmers on uneven and uncertain ground.
“Now that we have left the EU, new payments and incentives will reward farmers for farming more sustainably, creating space for nature on their land, enhancing animal welfare and reducing carbon emissions,” UK environment secretary George Eustice told the national farmer’s union conference in February of this year.
A spokesperson for the government’s department of environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) told EURACTIV that leaving the EU provides a “once in a generation opportunity” to develop their own agricultural policy and provide “the right support for our farmers”.
Similarly to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, DEFRA plans to roll out a number of new schemes which place greater emphasis on environmental protection and are designed to reward farmers for managing their land in an environmentally sustainable way.
“In the longer term, we remain committed to introducing new schemes which reward farmers for producing public goods which help to enhance our environment,” the spokesperson added.
But, as the adage goes, all that glitters is not gold. So the question is – how far will the new schemes deliver on these ambitions? And how does this compare to what is on the table for EU farmers in the upcoming CAP reform?
Moving away from direct payments ‘cushion’
A major aim of England’s new subsidy programme is to move away from a subsidy-based approach to a “more business-like partnership”, the DEFRA spokesperson explained.
This means a move away from direct payments, phased out over a period of seven years so as to avoid a “cliff-edge” for farmers.
Under the CAP, English farmers received around €2.5 billion in annual subsidies, around 86% of which constituted direct income support
This is something that has been in the works for many years, according to Viviane Gravey, a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, specialised in the environmental and agricultural impact of Brexit.
She pointed out that the UK has long advocated scrapping the first pillar of the CAP and shifting all funding to the second pillar, the EU’s rural development policy.
“This move to phase out direct payments is designed to encourage farmers to sign up to the new scheme because it’s the only way to receive the funding they need to keep their business going,” Gravey explained.
While this could encourage a shift towards more environmentally friendly practices, it also runs a “clear risk of massive land consolidation,” she warned.
This is due to the fact that only larger farms with more upfront capital have the extra time and “luxury of strategically applying for funding”, she said.
Without the cushion against “complete poverty” provided by direct payments, this could see many smaller farmers go out of business, she said, even if phased out gradually.
Gravey also pointed out that this decision to move away from direct payments will not be rolled out in the same way across the UK.
Instead, Northern Ireland and Scotland will continue to offer their farmers direct payments, albeit in a reduced capacity.
This risks increased fragmentation across the UK, she warned.
From legal commitments to political promises
Another major difference in England’s new plan for its farming sector is that, unlike the CAP, there is no longer a ring-fenced pot of money set aside for farmers.
“We have to start looking at this differently. Farming will no longer automatically continue to receive payments, we have to make our case to the Treasury like many other industries do,” Victoria Prentis, a junior minister for farming, fisheries and food, stressed during a recent event on the future of the UK’s agricultural policy.
Rob Cooke, programme director of greener farming and fisheries at Natural England, added that agriculture will “need to fight for its budget amongst other domestic priorities”.
“So it is really, really important that there is decent value for money, and that public payment for public goods delivers on environmental expectations,” he emphasised.
While this move away from an “exceptionalist” view of agriculture could provide more flexibility, the lack of binding commitments also risks leaving farmers on uncertain ground, Gravey highlighted.
“Support for farmers is moving from legal commitments to political promises,” she pointed out.
This means there is no coherence or guarantees of funding between one government and the next, leaving farmers vulnerable in the face of snap elections and political whims, she warned.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]