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Environmental payments can make British farming more productive, resilient and sustainable

Scrapping the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform English agriculture to make it more productive, resilient and sustainable. Since the Brexit vote, successive Conservative Environment Secretaries have grasped our new freedoms to develop a new system of farm payments for environmental stewardship, known as the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs).

The review of these schemes, announced in the Chancellor’s growth plan, must protect the principle of public money for public goods and not revert to the EU’s failed farm subsidy model.

For almost 50 years, the EU badly subsidised British farming through the disastrous CAP. In its most recent incarnation, it funded farmers for the amount of land they owned, benefiting the largest landowners and incentivising the grubbing out of natural features and ploughing up of margins. As a result, half the budget went to the biggest 10 per cent of landowners, and the UK is the most nature-depleted country in the G7.

These land-based subsidies did not help our food security. The UK’s self-sufficiency in food supplies is 18 per cent lower today than in the mid-1980s. EU subsidies have also stifled productivity growth and raised barriers to new entrants, squandering taxpayers’ cash in the process.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, rising energy, fertiliser and animal feed costs have led some to argue against subsidy reform, leaving the UK stuck with the EU’s failed system. This misguided argument doesn’t address the problems facing UK farming today.

Ploughing cash into large farms wouldn’t help the pig and poultry farmers facing the most significant cost increases due to the war, but who receive the least direct payments (up to 2 per cent of their income) because they have small land holdings.

Nor can we ask taxpayers to subsidise food production, forcing them to pay for food twice: through both their taxes and supermarket bills. This would also be illegal under World Trade Organisation rules, impacting UK trade. The UK would look protectionist when our country wants to become the standard bearer for global free trade outside of the EU.

In the long term, biodiversity loss and climate change are the biggest threat to the UK’s food security. With almost half of UK species in long-term decline and 15 per cent facing extinction, the soil invertebrates, pollinators and crop pest predators that sustain food production, are in crisis. Changing weather patterns make it harder for farmers to plan, and more intense and frequent droughts and flooding are already impacting yields. Our degraded soil and polluted water are also make farming harder.

If we continue to squeeze nature out of our countryside today, we will grow less food tomorrow.

That’s why we must break with the EU’s land subsidy model and move to payments for environmental public goods delivered through sustainable farming methods. These schemes will reward farmers for providing clean rivers and natural flood management – goods that the market does not currently value but which benefit us all. They are based upon conservative, market-based principles.

Better soil, more pollinators and natural pest management will also reduce farmers’ input costs and protect long-term food security. Environmental stewardship can also benefit from private markets for biodiversity, carbon and nutrient offset credits that businesses like water companies and property developers will need to purchase to deliver a net gain for nature. As a result, English agriculture can become more resilient and profitable while tackling climate change and halting the decline of nature.

For these reasons, a unique coalition wrote to The Times to reassert the principles behind our green Brexit farm reforms. The letter was signed by former Conservative Environment Secretaries, including the policy’s architect Michael Gove, Conservative MPs, the Conservative Environment Network, free-market think tanks and farm business associations, showing the breadth of centre-right and rural support for reform.

The government, now free from the EU’s hold, must take this opportunity to provide environmental payments to make our British farms more sustainable, productive and resilient.

First published by 1828. James Cullimore is CEN’s Senior Nature Programme Manager.


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