Water, beauty or producing food? Priorities for a new farm support policy
5th Jan 2017 / By Alistair Driver
What will replace the CAP? A high-profile Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) panel delivered a range of views on how farmers should be supported post-Brexit.
Defra Ministers have already indicated that they are keen to move away from area-based direct payments once the UK frees itself from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2020.
But what replaces that system is already the subject of fierce debate, with the pig sector, largely unsupported by the CAP over the decades, potentially standing to gain if the arguments fall its way.
The debate, of course, is not just confined to the UK farming sectors battling for a share of funding available post-2020. This was starkly highlighted at the OFC, as Guardian columnist, environmentalist and arch farming critic George Monbiot and National Trust director general Dame Helen Ghosh debated the issue with NFU deputy president Minette Batters and the union's horticulture chairman Guy Poskitt.
Arguably the most revealing moment came at the end when the panellists were asked to name one type of farming they would focus on post-Brexit.
"Water, mainly in the uplands," said Mr Monbiot.
"Beauty. I would like to farm beauty," Dame Helen added.
Both answers were followed by more detailed explanations, but they gave the audience a clear insight into the wider political platform on which this debate will be staged.
For the record, the existing farmers both chose to stick with their existing enterprises.
Prior to that, the debate was largely a head-to-head between Mr Monbiot and Mrs Batters (pictured above), who gave as good as she got.
Mr Monbiot opened by describing the CAP in its current form as a 'disaster' - the most regressive use of public money in the world as the bigger the farmer is, the more they get. It is also an 'environmental disaster', he added. Even Pillar Two environmental grants contribute to this by sustaining farming in areas where it should not be taking place.
He accpeted that spending on farming should continue post-Brexit but said the only three valid forms of public support for farming would be a hardship fund that would not be available to most farmers who do not need it, payments for public goods, mainly environmental restoration, and money for new entrants.
But he said there was no reason why farming was any more deserving of public support than other UK sectors, all of which would be negatively affected by Brexit.
He was scathing of the UK Government's 'chaotic' approach to the negotiations, suggesting 'we are going to leave the EU like a drunk leaving the pub at closing time'.
The other panellists did little to challenge his views on the current CAP, with Mrs Batters adamant that Brexit represented an oppportunity to formulate a policy that worked for the farmer and the taxpayer.
She said the NFU no longer saw any need for the current two pillar structure but stressed that a transitional period was likely to be needed, indicating the NFU will lobby to retain direct payments at some level in the years immediately following 2020.
Mrs Batters also suggested public funding should be more targeted at public goods, but for her, this included promoting productive farming, for example supporting precision technology, as well as measures that bring environmental and animal welfare benefits.
There was support across the panel for this money to be targeted partly through grant funding. This ties in with the NPA's calls for this type of funding to promote investment in buildings and equipment to improve animal welfare and reduce reliance on antibiotics.
But the nature of any support policy would depend entirely on the nature of the new trade arrangments negotiated by the Government, Mrs Batters said. A good deal would go some way to reducing the need for future public support for farming, while a bad one would only increase this need.
She highlighted, for example, how a Mercosur-type deal could expose the UK to imported meat from Argentina produced to lower standards than permitted in the EU. This brought the debate back to what should be the fundamental question - where do we want to source our food from post-Brexit.
Mr Monbiot could only nod in agreement.