FORGET a level playing field for UK agriculture post-Brexit. That’s an out-dated concept with no place in future UK farm policy, members heard when pro-Leave campaigner George Eustice MP, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, addressed the Farmers Club on Monday 7th November 2016.
“My view is that it is something of a chimera, a mirage. We’ve been chasing this level playing field, but in fact it doesn’t really exist. I actually think it is the wrong objective to have. What I am seeking in the way we design agricultural policy is a competitive advantage. I want the best policy in the world, that gives our agriculture the strongest possible position, to be the most competitive in the world. And you get there by having good policy, rooted in the power of ideas. You don’t get there by holding hands with 27 other member states, in my view. The objective should be the high ground on the battle ground, not a level playing field.”
Some listened with fascinated horror to what was felt to be a surplus of optimism. Others warmed to the theme of free-trading, democratic, repatriated policy. But whatever the viewpoint, there was a huge desire to hear the ideas that would underpin the architecture of a future farm policy.
Mr Eustice outlined five key areas Defra was addressing, over and above the stated commitment to support basic farm payments up to 2020. He foresaw a fresh farm policy, rooted in new ideas, that within a decade would be seen as one to emulate and copy.
Given the notoriously risky nature of farming there was a role for Government to help manage and mitigate that risk, he said. Current models being looked at included Canadian-style weather insurance, crop protection as in the USA, although that was seen as overly bureaucratic with high dead weight costs, r an Australian-style crisis fund with tax breaks.
Agri-environment payments needed to better reflect the provision of public goods, properly costed. The market currently failed to pay for many of those goods. Tailored local approaches, maybe at water catchment level, as well as a national scheme, were likely. What was possible and appropriate on a Devon farm could be very different from what might work on a Cambridgeshire farm, he noted.
Productivity needed to improve, so knowledge transfer and deployment of new technologies would be a priority. But this would be through industry self-help groups, and Government-backed loans to boost investment, rather than grants. “It is not just about Government writing a cheque, but about vernment incentivising ways of doing things.”
Fairer risk sharing across the food chain was also needed, to build on the work of the Grocery Adjudicator, again with incentives, to ensure risks are “not dumped on farmers as they are now”.
The UK would be an exemplar of animal welfare, since it was a manifesto pledge, and this would be achieved through investment and, once again, incentives, not just regulation. Welfare standards would be upheld in trade talks, he said, which Defra would help negotiate, alongside Liam Fox’s newly branded Department for International Trade, so agricultural issues were recognised.
His summary? “We may have a universal support scheme in the future, and alongside that complementary schemes to help manage risk, and also funds and grants to invest for the future, and supply chain fairness, because if farmers receive a fairer share they will be less dependent on support payments.”
On the issue of pesticide regulation he felt the UK could continue to influence EU policy. “Through the Chemicals Regulation Directorate the UK brings more expertise than any other country.” But if policy differences emerged, individual importers and exporters would need to ensure produce complied with the relevant legislation in different end markets.
Whilst refusing to engage in the likelihood, or otherwise, of the UK staying in the single market, he suggested third country trade agreements need not be hindered. A fair formula could be identified for some of the EU’s favourable tariff rate quotas to be allocated to the UK, with WTO agreement.
Free Trade Agreements already in place through the EU could most likely be rolled-over to a post-Brexit UK, he added, since the UK was already a signatory to them.
Without the need to achieve consensus with 27 other member states the UK would be more “agile” in striking new trade deals, he continued. “The evidence is that countries which are far smaller than the UK [economically], such as Australia and New Zealand, have been far more successful in opeing up reements. We will be able to tailor deals to our own needs.”
He recognised the need for migrant labour, stressing his background as a farmer with a strawberry operation employing hundreds of migrant labourers. Immigration would not stop, and something like the former Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was entirely possible.
“I’m open to good ideas from anybody who want to bring one to me, and it’s not just organisations I want to hear from, but individual farmers too,” he stressed.
This was the latest in the increasingly successful series of Monday Evening Lectures at the Club. Watch out for further Events, open to all members of the Club in 2017.