Photo by lucentius

Uproot EU-style subsidies

Our agricultural sector can’t grow until we get the government off of our land

Artillery Row

Lately, British farmers have been heavily critical of the government’s approach to farming. A government plan to pay British farmers to re-wild the countryside was opposed by the National Farming Union, with its Vice President, Tom Bradshaw warning that this may lead to reduced food production in the UK: “my biggest fear would be that if this policy results in reduced food production in the UK and we simply import from countries with lower standards, then we may end up living in a green oasis here, but we have simply off-shored our production and any environmental impacts that go with it this is morally incomprehensible.”

Just before Christmas, Britain managed to sign a trade deal with Australia. That didn’t please Britain’s agricultural industry either, as it lamented there would be “full liberalisation of dairy after just six years, sugar after eight years and beef and lamb after 15 years”.

Free trade should be pursued even if some may feel some temporary downsides, but British farmers have a point complaining that they are now asked to compete with Australian farmers, which operate in a more liberated and therefore competitive environment.

These examples of corruption are a feature rather than a bug of the system

For now, there is little sign of the UK government using its newly found freedom to realise this, while it seems to be keen to continue with policies not dissimilar to the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This accounts for about a third of the EU’s budget and has been regularly lambasted for ripping off European taxpayers and throwing up barriers to trade. In addition to hurting consumers, schemes like the CAP also fuel graft, with leaders like the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán accused of misappropriating subsidies and organised crime syndicates in countries like Italy cashing in on agricultural payments from Brussels.

Given how EU agricultural money is distributed, these examples of corruption are a feature rather than a bug of the system. Experts such as Joost de Jong, a former official in the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, point out that “80 per cent of the money goes to 20 per cent of farmers”, inevitably subsidizing major landowners and leaving small farms at a disadvantage, as cash is allocated on the basis of land ownership. This gives rise to situations where some of Europe’s wealthiest people, including Queen Elizabeth, have been listed as the largest recipients of CAP cash.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, instead of fixing these systemic issues, the European Union is making life even more difficult for farmers. In its new “Farm to Fork strategy”, the EU aims to cut pesticide use by 50 per cent by the end of this decade. In accordance with that target, the European Commission is currently planning to update its directive on the use of pesticides. These moves are far out of step with the reality of farming, given the key role pesticides play.

Now that it has left the EU, post-Brexit Britain has an opportunity to break with continental Europe’s counterproductive approach to agriculture. The UK government needs to resist the urge to continue top down interventions, subsidy schemes and other incentive mechanisms, a danger that is particularly evident when it comes to new UK plans to link payments for farmers to how they care for soil.

False prophets of green agriculture

Cutting down on fertilisers and pesticides might not sound like a bad idea, but as always with such complex issues, the devil is in the details. In spite of the claims of environmental campaigners, reducing pesticide use does not necessarily improve the environmental footprint of modern agriculture. On the contrary, it requires more land be cleared to maintain the same level of production, all while leaving farmers and the communities they feed more vulnerable to the risks of insects and plant diseases devasting yields.

According to some estimates, more than half the world’s crops would be lost to insects, diseases and weeds were it not for pesticides. As the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) points out, pests already destroy anywhere from 20-40 per cent of global crop production, with invasive insects alone costing the global economy $70 billion each year.

It is also misleading to claim that “organic” farming, which the EU is heavily promoting, would somehow involve no pesticide use. Indeed, in the US, there are dozens of chemicals approved by the US Department of Agriculture for the growing and processing of organic crops, with organic farms sometimes using more pesticides than traditional family farms. The difference is that “organic” pesticides are derived from natural sources, but given the use of compounds like rotenone, that does not make them safer.

The UK’s opportunity to strike a different course

Brexit has afforded the UK a chance to rethink the EU’s counterproductive approach to agriculture. Last year, the UK government pledged “to introduce a new system that is tailored to the interests of English farmers, centred on support that rewards farmers and land managers for sustainable farming practices”, adding: “the changes will be designed to ensure that by 2028, farmers in England can sustainably produce healthy food profitably without subsidy, whilst taking steps to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare and reduce carbon emissions.”

In its drive to promote EU-style “greening of agriculture”, the UK government seems to have missed an evaluation of CAP-driven greening measures by the German Environment Agency, published in May. It concluded that a €1.5 billion annual subsidy paid to farmers to implement such policies only managed limited “environmental improvements”, and even those “were [achieved] at high costs”.

GMO could be wiser than heavy-handed regulation of pesticides

While the UK government’s plans did not mention genetically modified (GMO) products, revised farming regulations in England are bringing such crops closer to reality. The EU’s anti-innovation mindset surrounding GMO crops has put it out of step with the rest of the world, but genetic modification could be a wiser alternative to heavy-handed regulation of pesticides. As findings by the renowned molecular biologist Marc Van Montagu make clear, GM technologies not only reduce the need for pesticides but also increase productivity, reduce soil erosion and prevent tons of CO2 emissions.

When it comes to the “direct payments” notoriously linked to ownership of agricultural land, the UK government also promised that “direct payments will be reduced fairly, starting from the 2021 Basic Payment Scheme year, with the money released being used to fund new grants and schemes to boost farmers’ productivity and reward environmental improvements”.

Given the failures of this “public money for public goods” model at the EU level, the UK needs to reflect on whether it wants to use its newfound policy freedom to recycle failed EU policy models.

Ultimately, the model for post-Brexit Britain should not be the EU’s “greening” of agricultural policy, but instead the path chosen by New Zealand. That country’s agricultural exports rose by 39 per cent over seven years after it abandoned protectionist and interventionist policies in the 1980s, helping dispel the idea that top-down planning and shielding farmers from the global economy could achieve food security and a robust agricultural sector.

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