Rethinking the way we do agriculture policy – Defra minister George Eustice
Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food George Eustice attended a Conservative party conference fringe event hosted by Bright Blue and the Woodland Trust on the countryside after Brexit, discussing the proposed scheme to replace the Common Agricultural Policy.
Speaking at a Conservative party conference fringe event hosted by Bright Blue and the Woodland Trust, the Agriculture minister George Eustice set out his concerns with the Common Agricultural Policy and said that he looks forward to implementing a new scheme after the UK has left the European Union.
The inefficient nature of the subsidy structure was clear to see he said, citing a new [CAP] scheme restricting subsidies paid for land with too many trees on it.
“Why are we going to such lengths to stop woodland being eligible when we actually like woodland; we like trees, we want more trees. To me therefore there was a fundamental case for rethinking the way we do agriculture policy”, he said.
The minister explained that the UK will leave the CAP as a result of Brexit, and that changes to the farm payment system are set out in the Agriculture Bill published on 12th September:
“We want to gradually move away from an area-based subsidy system, to one where we are actually making payments to farmers for the delivery of public good.”
The new scheme should have scope to create a market in ecosystem services in terms of large scale woodland creation for flood mitigation and carbon sequestration, Eustice added.
The problem with subsidy the minister explained, was that it was currently injected into the farming sector in “a thoughtless way” and that farmers were not necessarily the only or even the main beneficiary and that it can lead to higher costs.
George Eustice said the Bill was also able to help farmers increase their productivity, with Defra getting powers to give grant aided support to enable farmers to invest in technology and it would also enable fairness in the supply chain.
He stated “farmers often say to me they don’t really want subsidy, they want a fair price for the food that they produce, and we want to give them the tools that enable that to happen without legislating to dictate what prices should be”.
Heading off criticism of comments being either pro-farming or pro-environment, the minister stressed that this was a false antagonism and that “good environmental stewardship and productive farming are in my view two sides of the same coin.”
Woodland Trust Chief Executive, Beccy Speight, welcomed the new Agriculture Bill and said it was moving in the right direction in terms of enhancing the environment, saying “for us, the sustainable environment is the bedrock for our prosperity and for our quality of life.”
She added that trees provide a wide range of benefits to society, like flood alleviation, reducing soil erosion and improving air quality, and that increasing tree cover should be a key element of future land use policy.
She argued that the huge increase in productivity in the 20th Century had been responsible for a “frightening decline” in biodiversity, which had a negative impact on soil fertility and soil diversity.
Highlighting the importance of working with farmers and landowners, Beccy Speight said Woodland Trust farm ambassadors welcomed outcome-based payments and the freedom to operate within a clear framework set out by the government.
She called for security in terms of government policy and funding however, given the long-term planning involved for farming communities.
Rebecca Wrigley, Chief Executive of Rewilding Britain said that the rural economy needs new answers, given the very low incomes and current high dependency on subsidies, under-employment and people struggling to stay in their communities.
The threat of ‘no deal’ or a hard Brexit was significant for farmers Ms Wrigley said, especially if the export market for upland farmers disappears.
Minette Batters, NFU President said this was “a hugely important time for the future of our farmers and for the future of our nation” and that it was right up there in terms of significance with the 1947 Agriculture Act and our accession to the European Community in the first place.
Ms Batters said that we must now strive to get farmers a fair return for their products, without subsidy, which can be challenging given the UK currently has the third lowest food prices in the world after the USA and Singapore.
She had concerns that other food producers were looking at the UK market of 66 million consumers, and that British farmers mustn’t be priced out of their own marketplace.
Technical Director of Confor (the Confederation of Forest Industries) Andrew Heald said there is now a real shortage of timber particularly in England and Wales.
The UK is 2nd biggest importer of forest products in the world, second only to China, according to Heald and that the price of UK timber standing in woodland now has doubled since 2016.
He said there was now a clear demand for a better integrated, more strategic approach to land management, bringing together foresters, farmers and environmental management.
Increased tree planting and greater use of timber in construction are simple low-cost options to tackle climate change which could boost the UK forestry sector and assist in building the 300,000 houses required annually to solve the UK’s housing crisis.
He added that UK tree planting targets are routinely missed and that it was important for someone within the government to be held accountable for this, to ensure a big step change in levels of planting for future timber production.