Recent media coverage and analysis has focused on the details of the Brexit negotiations and a possible free trade agreement with the EU. Not much attention, however, has been given to the clear benefits of Brexit which we can take advantage of, whether or not a deal with the EU is agreed. Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and forming our own agricultural policy, which serves the interests of our farmers, our consumers and our environment, will be one of those opportunities.
The CAP is the largest common policy of the EU, making up over a third of total EU spending. The programme has been rightly associated with waste and inefficiency in the public psyche for many years. This wastefulness is largely due to the link between payments and the amount of land owned, resulting in huge payments to some of the wealthiest landowners. For example, £400,000 is paid to a billionaire Saudi Prince, whose Newmarket estate is primarily used for breeding racehorses. In addition, these payments often do not filter down to the farmers who actually work the land, as they are paid directly to the landowners.
Despite the EU’s claims of its environmentalist credentials, the CAP subsidises farming without sufficient requirements for environmental protection. The policy provides farmers with an incentive to put all their acres into food production, neglecting other natural capital assets like forests. It drives farmers towards more intensive, industrial and environmentally damaging practices. For instance, there is an incentive to remove hedgerows to enlarge fields, threatening our biodiversity. Research from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests the number of farmland birds in the UK has declined by over half since 1970.
By creating artificially higher food prices inside the EU, the CAP restricts competition by non-EU producers. Many developing countries are heavily dependent on agriculture and are damaged by the EU’s protectionism. Outside the CAP, we can have cheaper food and a pro-development agricultural policy, which will give the British consumer greater choice of food across the seasons.
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has confirmed the Government will continue the subsidies at the current level for the next few years to minimise uncertainty. After this time, a new UK agricultural policy will be introduced.
Gove would like to introduce legislation to reduce subsidies for the wealthiest farmers, perhaps with a maximum cap, though he may encounter opposition from land-owning members of the House of Lords. There will be stricter requirements for rural and environmental protection in a new system of “public money for public goods”. Planting meadows, recovering soil fertility and providing access to the countryside will be rewarded.
As we design our bespoke agricultural policy, we should consider the examples of other non-EU countries. In the 1980s, New Zealand embarked upon extensive subsidy reform, freeing farmers of unnecessary bureaucracy and improving sustainability and competitiveness. Meanwhile, Switzerland leads the way in rewarding the development of biodiversity and natural assets.
Leaving the CAP presents us with a huge opportunity to radically reform how we support our farmers and our environment. No longer will taxpayers be paying for excessive subsidies to wealthy landowners. Instead, payments to farmers will be used to maintain our agricultural standards and output, while ensuring our environment is preserved for future generations.
And importantly, high standards in food quality and animal welfare will be maintained after Brexit. One area where the UK regulations could go beyond the EU standards is the labelling of foods with methods of slaughter. Introducing higher labelling requirements for Halal and Kosher meat would give consumers an informed choice, amid concerns animals are suffering needlessly before being killed. Conservative MPs and leading vets have raised concerns about the failure to stun animals before killing them under some methods of slaughter, which is cruel. George Eustice, the farming minister, has now indicated the Government will consider introducing labelling after the UK leaves the European Union.
Michael Gove’s proposals for a radical new UK agricultural policy after we Get Britain Out of the EU have attracted support from across the political spectrum. Boosting agriculture is one area where politicians should be moving beyond the same old debates about Brexit and coming together behind the exciting opportunities for our country.
Peter Lyon is a Research Executive at cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out