Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
Farming is both the single most important influence on the communities, economy and landscape of rural Britain, and the industry which faces the most uncertainty in the Brexit process. That is why the Agriculture Bill, published on Wednesday, is not just another piece of legislation.
Since 1973, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, we have been part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which is one of the few uniting features of modern politics. From environmental organisations to agribusinesses; from remainer to brexiteer; from the left to the right of politics, everyone seems to agree that the CAP has been damaging and wasteful. The question now is what to replace it with, and there are plenty of, often competing, visions.
There is a broad acceptance that farm payments should derive from the delivery of ‘public goods’. This is critical not least because the days when the taxpayer could be expected to support farming without question or scrutiny are long gone. This will only become more true as farm support becomes a part of domestic political debate in a way it has not been for the last 45 years. The cost of farm payments to the British taxpayer have been wrapped up in the EU budget, but in future it will be another item on the Chancellor’s expenditure account and farming will have to compete for every pound with the other priorities of the government of the day.
So farming will have to show that it is delivering public goods to continue to justify support. The outstanding question is what those public goods are, and what priority is put on them. No-one questions that there will be a significant element of future payments linked to delivering environmental benefits, the outstanding question is how much the production of food itself, the very purpose of farming, can or should be considered a public good. The Agriculture Bill does not answer that question. It would give future governments the ability to deliver environmental payments, and to support increased productivity, but it does not lay out the detail of how much will be paid for what. That is the key question that will continue to be at the centre of the ongoing debate about the future of farming and the countryside.
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