Defra minister George Eustice, who campaigned to leave the EU before the referendum, set out more details of the move to a UK farm policy at the first Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) Business & Policy conference in London last week.
Mr Eustice said the government had committed to introducing a new Agriculture Act within this Parliament in the Queen’s Speech. Defra is currently preparing a white paper on the proposals, which should be published in spring 2018 – he called for industry input to help inform this process now. The White Paper would precede the introduction of a full Agriculture Bill to Parliament in summer/autumn 2018.
The 2015 election manifesto under David Cameron had promised 25 year plans for both agriculture and the environment. Under the post-referendum administration, the work already undertaken on these initiatives is being incorporated into the new agriculture white paper and bill. The interests of the food processing and manufacturing sector will be represented in a new industrial strategy that is being drawn up by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
The minister said the decision to leave the EU offers a rare opportunity to reshape UK farm policy. He said the intention is to move from direct farm subsidy, which he maintained has led to higher land and input costs, overproduction and lower farmgate prices. Rather, there would be a more modular approach to increase agricultural productivity, perhaps through measures such as equipment grants and incentives to collaborate at farm level over production and marketing.
He denied that this would lead to a drive to intensification, saying there is room for both hi-tech robotics and precision technologies and low input organic and pasture-fed livestock systems.
There will be greater emphasis on integrating farming and the environment, not through set aside measures, but by greater attention to soil health, emissions reduction and water quality. This could be achieved through incentivising husbandry systems that meet these objectives, in the same way as the present ELS and mid tier systems.
The government recognises that the industry is “hugely dependent” on the Single Farm Payment (SFP) Mr Eustice continued – so there will be a transition to a new policy rather than an overnight revolution. The Chancellor has committed to maintaining farm support at current CAP levels until 2022, when a “coherent, finished policy” will be in place. “There will be a 4-5 year transition period,” advised Mr Eustice. “There is no question of pulling the rug from under the industry.”
Farmers and their advisers will have time to adapt businesses to the new environment. Defra is exploring risk management models to help mitigate future farm income volatility.
Delegates at the conference were vocal in expressing their concern that a lack of European labour is already biting in the dairy and horticulture sectors – potential workers felt less welcome in the UK while the weaker sterling made their pay worth less.
The government’s Migration Advisory Committee seemed reluctant to help the industry, while allowing stable lads and ballet dancers to appear on its short occupations list – why couldn’t agriculture also be on this list? Mr Eustice said the Home Office is already struggling to bring down net migration figures as domestic unemployment rates are now very low – he advised the sector to make a strong case to the Home Office.