Where is all the money going?


Posted by in May's Magazine

Anybody reading what the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been writing or listening to what he’s been saying might think that he has great plans for the environment. He’s talking a good game, praising NFU members for their work to prevent environmental degradation and the work they do against climate change..

No-one seems to be noticing the little lines he’s dropping in, though. For decades the EU has paid farmers subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy to help keep food prices low. There have always been disagreements about how the system works and whether it benefits all farmers equally and it has always been changing to adapt, but when the UK leaves the EU next year the payments will stop.

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Michael Gove is suggesting a new form of payment from the UK Government to landowners. He wants to move the subsidies away from food producers to reward landowners who deliver what he calls “public goods” including “environmental enhancements”. What are those? Well, he wants to see some land untilled and trees planted and wildlife encouraged; he wants to see “resilient habitats” and “richer wildlife” where there was once food production. I hope I’m wrong but it sounds to me like he’s talking about grouse moors and shooting estates picking up some of the cash that used to go to farmers.

The UK Government has a commitment to maintain the CAP payments, in cash terms, until the next UK general election but no commitment to keep paying the same subsidies for food production. They can take money away from farmers and give it to Lord Bufton Tufton to subsidise his hunting, shooting and fishing business.

That, of course, means that food production will no longer be subsidised to the same extent and food prices would go up. Smaller farmers might struggle to survive without the CAP payments they’ve relied on for so long and it might seem a better option to sell up and move on. Diversity in farming would be lost – the big farmers and big agribusinesses would be buying up smaller farms and consolidating their landholdings. Little businesses would go under, family farms would disappear, and massive businesses would rule the countryside.

That would satisfy some of Gove’s other stated ambitions. He says he wants to see much more technology and automation in farming – and that’s much easier with really big farming businesses. He says he wants to see fewer people employed in agriculture – more machinery and more technology, more genetic modification and new plant bio-security but fewer people working. All of that is much easier with bigger farms and fewer players in the game.

So food prices go up, small businesses go bust, public money in the form of subsidies will be more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer big landowners, and food production will become the preserve of a hegemony. The very rich will get richer off the public purse and richer still by controlling the means of producing food while the poor will find that food is no longer affordable. Doesn’t sound like the land of opportunity and promise that the Brexiteers promised us, does it?

Here’s the thing, though – Gove is responsible for the English system and the devolved administrations are responsible for their own patches. I don’t think anyone expects the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government to shaft their farmers in this way – or to make food more expensive for the people they serve. Northern Ireland, of course, is anyone’s guess just now with no political leadership in Stormont but Scotland and Wales are fairly safe bets.

So if Scotland controls its own system and Wales does the same, why am I concerned about Gove running off on his merry way? Well, with us being dragged out of the EU and stuck in a union with England that leaves that nation as the elephant in the bed we’re tied far too tightly to what happens down south. Both ends of that elephant are dangerous.

Being cut off from the free trading of the EU will mean that our food producers will find it harder to sell into Europe and our farmers will find it harder to survive. With no or limited access to the cheaper food that’s produced in Europe our food prices will rise. Our trade with England and being cut off from the EU will mean that England’s food price increase will also affect us.

Brexit has many disadvantages but one of the worst might be that a Government in London chasing an ideological goal could do us massive damage. I don’t think that will be their intent, it’s just that our interests won’t even be part of their calculations. It’s going to be a bumpy ride and it’s only just getting started. Deidre Brock

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

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