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Harmony? Really?

Harmony? Really?

The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP, has launched a vision for the future of British agriculture which features the word 'harmony' in the title. Foolish optimism, perhaps? Our MD, Philip Gibson, looks at what it is all about…

The government's consultation document on the future of British agricultural policy - 'Health and Harmony: The Future of Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit' - has recently been published. This document sets out a vision for how agriculture will be supported and directed in the future and, it would seem on the surface at least, that Defra is an oasis of calm in the otherwise stormy waters of Brexit. Gove seems to be fairly popular - he's articulate and bright and seems to have a clear view on the future, which has been broadly accepted as a sensible approach.

After decades of being constrained by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy we now have the opportunity to set out our own stall for the future. Sounds good? Well, the devil will be in the detail, of course.

In brief, Gove's proposals are that support payments will change from a system based on the area of land farmed, towards a new approach focused on paying farmers 'public money for public good'. In practice, it seems that this will focus on the environment, through a recognition of the value of natural capital, although it could also include investment in skills and technology to improve productivity, providing public access to farmland, enhanced animal welfare standards and measures to support resilience of rural communities.

Critically, the government is consulting with the industry to determine the exact shape and implementation of future policy, so this doesn't appear to be about being done unto - for now, at least. But what will this new approach mean for the agricultural industry in the UK?

Here the jury is out. A focus on the environment has been welcomed by many - particularly the NGO community - and is also nothing new, as the 2003 Curry report and the 2010 Lawton report both argued for more focus on environmental activity and the delivery of public good. What is different is the focus on payment by results and natural capital, but it remains unclear exactly how success will be determined.

Yet others think that the proposals haven't given enough emphasis to food production. Back in July 2017, a report was published by the University of Sussex - 'A Food Brexit: time to get real' - which outlined that 31% of food consumed in the UK comes from the EU, and called for the government to "make a clear and explicit commitment to ensuring a sufficient, sustainable, safe and equitable supply of food, and set out how that will be achieved when and if the UK is no longer in the EU." It went on to suggest that "unless some such broad commitment is made and delivered, we foresee a danger of the UK's food supply becoming insufficient, increasingly unsustainable, unsafe and inequitable." Yet the consultation the government has issued doesn't really focus on how we can build a resilient and secure supply of domestically produced food at all. Surely food security is the ultimate public good, yet it doesn't seem to feature in the government's thinking at present.

One thing's for sure - we face considerable change, in some sectors more than others. Sectors that rely heavily on basic payment support for survival such as the beef and sheep sectors could struggle, particularly if trade deals don't deliver free access to EU markets.

One man's troubles might be another man's opportunity, however. Perhaps a fundamental re-map of British agriculture, whilst painful in the short term, might be the shot in the arm the industry needs to prosper in the future?

The consultation process, which ends in mid-May, is critical. When considered alongside the wider issues of Brexit that will also impact on agriculture, such as uncertainty over trade arrangements, access to markets and exchange rate volatility, the only immediate thing Brexit brings is insecurity. Will we end up with food, farming and the environment being in harmony, as Gove's optimistically-titled consultation suggests? Time will tell.

Written by Philip at 15:43

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