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Comment: Everything to play for in post-Brexit agriculture policy scramble

The United Kingdom is about to become a laboratory for perhaps the biggest agricultural policy experiment since New Zealand abandoned farm subsidies in the 1980s.

Britain’s impeding departure from the EU means that it has a rare opportunity to rebuild its agriculture policy from scratch - should it choose to do so.

Alternatively, it could choose in effect to ‘clone’ the Common Agricultural Policy under which it has been used to operating until now, and continue with something very similar to current agricultural policy (albeit with purely UK national funding from now on).

These are the two basic options which have become the core battleground for stakeholders lobbying for the future of British farm policy, as Defra, and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, consider their options.

Environmentally-focused groups such as the National Trust and Greenpeace are lobbying for the same thing that the British government has consistently urged in EU negotiations over recent years - namely the phasing-out of Pillar 1 direct aid payments, and their replacement by ‘green’ support payments, analogous to CAP Pillar 2 aids, which emphasise the delivery of ‘public goods’ such as a clean environment.

The difference now is that, without the need to convince 27 other countries to see things the same way, the UK administrations have it within their power actually to put their radical plans into action.

And if there is a shift away from payments based primarily on farm size, the UK could end up conducting a kind of ‘Robin Hood’ operation whereby large quantities of public cash are taken away from the largest and wealthiest farmers and re-allocated to other farm types (or, quite conceivably, simply taken back by the UK Treasury).

This is a realistic prospect and it is motivating the current rather urgent campaign by the National Farmers Union and others to view security of food supply as an equally important ‘public good’ – and hence worthy of continuing state support.

The inertia exerted by the status quo may eventually prevail to prevent any major reform of UK agriculture policy – but at present, across the four British policy administrations, all outcomes are entirely possible.

 

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