The government’s plans for a post-Brexit settlement to support British agriculture are based on little more than “blind optimism” and risk making the UK more dependent on food imports, a parliamentary inquiry has warned.
The EU’s subsidy system – known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and worth £3 billion a year for British farmers – was one of the long-running complaints from Eurosceptics, who saw Britain’s ability to develop its own scheme. payment transactions as one of the main benefits of Brexit. Ministers had said the new scheme would be used to increase the environmental benefits of agriculture.
However, MPs from the powerful cross-party public accounts commission (PAC) noted that there was still a crippling lack of detail about the environmental management schemes (ELMs) intended to replace EU payments. They said that, as the government itself admits, “its confidence in the plan resembles blind optimism”. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had failed to explain how the new scheme’s impact on English farmers would be mitigated, warning that some could cut their direct payment income by more than half by 2024-25. see it fall.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Tory vice-chair of PAC and a long-standing Brexit supporter, said more than five years after the EU referendum, there were still “no clear plans” to replace the CAP. He warned that some “slim margin” small farms could go out of business.
“Farmers, especially the next generation on whom we will depend to achieve our combined food production and environmental goals, have been left in the dark. It is simply wrong that Defra’s own failures in business planning undermine the security critical to a critical national industry,” he said.
“The UK is also already a major net importer of food and we’ve heard evidence that the ELM’s vague ambition to ‘maximize the value to society of the landscape’ could in reality mean increasing that further. The recent energy price crisis should serve as a salutary warning of the potential risks to food availability and affordability if the UK becomes even more reliant on imports.”
The new scheme aims to provide “public money for public goods,” funding farmers to restore nature, nurture soils, improve air and water quality, and provide habitats for wildlife through ELMs. However, the National Farmers’ Union said the report should be a “wake-up call” to the government and said a lack of information had left farmers in an untenable position.
“We are very concerned that not all farmers can participate,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the union. “The cabinet has still not made it clear how food production fits into the proposed new regulations. This needs to be addressed now, if they expect farmers to join. As the PAC emphasizes, we can simply increase imports of food produced to lower environmental standards.
“It is critical that Defra conducts and publishes the results of impact assessments to understand the real impact of the proposed changes, something we have repeatedly asked for but have not come up with.”
Dustin Benton, policy director at the environmental think tank Green Alliance, said it was not clear the new scheme would help the government achieve its own climate and wildlife goals. “We need ministers to say how ELMs will help achieve net zero carbon and restore wildlife so farmers can plan their business,” he said. “Without this, the green Brexit promised by the government seems increasingly out of sight.”
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said the plan could have unintended consequences for consumers and the planet: “The big danger is that we end up with an even more divided, two-tier food system, where cheaper food from abroad, with costs enormous ecological consequences, replaces food that could be grown here in an environmentally friendly way.”
“Working in this way is inefficient, useless for UK land managers and increases the potential of perverse outcomes, such as driving more deforestation abroad,” he said.
George Eustice, Environment Secretary, said: “We disagree with many of the points made by the committee which do not take into account recent developments. Farm incomes have improved significantly since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and there will never be a better time to improve the way we reward farmers.
“In December I laid out comprehensive details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, including full payment rates, and we published an in-depth analysis of food security and agricultural production in the UK. In the past week, we shared more details about the local wildlife and landscape restoration programs and announced a major increase in payment rates for the farmers involved in existing agri-environmental programs.”