Food we can rely on
Alongside Brexit itself, some of the issues most likely to affect our future well-being include the government’s proposals for our farming and fishing industries. While the latter is of some interest to me as a shadow Defra minister, this article is going to focus on agriculture, as that sector is of direct concern to this constituency and I have responsibilities for the Opposition over the reform of this sector.
Leaving the EU and the Common Agriculture Policy is one of the most fundamental changes that the UK will face. Given that farming has received more money from this budget area than any other industry, the effects on food production, on the countryside, and on those who derive their income from the land will be profound.
In response to this change, the government has produced a Command Paper entitled ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’. This is out for consultation until May. It’s quite a long read but can be downloaded from the Defra website at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/684003/future-farming-environment-consult-document.pdf.
The crux of the Paper’s proposals is to change the system whereby farmers and landowners receive support in the form of area payments to one where they are rewarded according to the public goods that they provide. There is nothing wrong with paying farmers to maintain the landscape and for other environmental benefits. However, to move completely away from any form of direct support to those who produce our food is highly questionable and could be counterproductive if it leads to less food being created and commensurate increases in prices.
I’ve spent the last few weeks meeting up with all manner of interested parties: farmers, land owners, conservation and green groups, and consumer bodies. While some aspects of the government’s approach are welcomed, particularly where the emphasis is upon improving our environment with better soil quality, water management and enhanced animal husbandry, there are so many questions and much alarm about the government’s ability to make the necessary reforms in such a short period of time.
My main worry is that those smaller tenanted and family units will be sacrificed in a race to try to increase efficiency and profitability by reliance upon scale, changing our rural landscape forever. Though other parts of the country have more to lose than ours, there will still be threats especially to those who are on County Council holdings. I am working closely with the industry to try to prevent this from happening, while also protecting those who urgently need food prices to remain stable.