JOE GILL: British farmers at risk of ploughing lonely furrow

Michael Gove

What on earth must farmers in Britain make of the recent utterances by their Minister for Agriculture, Michael Gove?

In a detailed and wide-ranging presentation, Mr Gove has outlined a set of ideas about how food and farming in the UK must step forward in a Brexit context. At the heart of that thesis is an inherent contradiction, which makes his entire premise difficult to stomach.

Mr Gove castigates the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for its supposed inefficiency, and looks forward to designing a UK regulatory structure that cuts down on subsidies for land owners, while boosting the environmental integrity of UK farmland.

At the same time, he says “..we are confident of building a new economic partnership with the EU, that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods across each other’s borders. We know that we have a deficit in agricultural and horticultural produce with the EU 27.

“Irish beef farmers, French butter and cheese producers, Dutch market gardeners, and Spanish salad growers all have an interest just as, if not more acute, than Welsh sheep farmers or Ulster dairy farmers, in securing continued tariff-free access between the UK and the EU.”

The clear implication, here, is that farmers in these EU countries, outside of the UK, will support an agreement that allows Britain to shape an agricultural policy markedly different from that of the EU, while allowing seamless trade of product between both economies.

I doubt that. Moreover, I think anyone in the UK underestimating the influence of farming communities in the EU on CAP-related trade will do so at their cost.

Britain has a long-standing record of scepticism around subsidised farming, which stretches all the way back to the creation of laissez-faire economics during the 18th century.

The Tory party, in particular, has deep links to fully-liberalised market structures that encourage maximum efficiency at all levels.

In farming, such policy points directly towards industrial-scale farms that have large-size holdings and cost-minimisation at their core. It is the policy that applies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Oceania, where industrial farming holds fast.

These farm systems are the polar opposite of what the CAP has strived to do over many decades — support family farm structures and environmentally positive policies.

Why else are average farm sizes across most of Europe materially smaller than those in New Zealand or Argentina?

Why else is so much money directly paid to farmers in the EU — including Britain, at present — who observe explicit guidelines to foster hedgerows and natural habitats?

They exist because farmers and politicians throughout Europe have repeatedly signed up for a taxpayer-financed system of checks and balances that support such outcomes.

Of course, the CAP can be made more user-friendly and — in all probability — its budget can be made more efficient, too.

But it is naive, in the extreme, to say an entirely new farm policy can be devised in Britain that costs significantly less, but achieves more, without harming the family farms that are especially visible in the North, in Wales, and in parts of regional England.

My fear is that UK farmers will be driven ever faster out of business, as subsidies collapse post-Brexit. The industrialisation of UK farms will intensify and, despite lofty aspirations, that, too, will undermine the natural habitat in its countryside.

Some British farmers may be hugely critical of the CAP — and the Common Fisheries Policy, too — but are ignoring the fact that they have long had allies in powerful farming lobbies across Europe, who fought to shape a CAP in favour of primary producers everywhere.

It also has contained a heavy emphasis on protecting the environment in recent years.

Exposed to the specific UK politics of right-wing free marketeers and left-wing urban-centric agendas, custodians of land risk being saddled with a very poor outcome. British farming families deserve better.

  • Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.


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