Brexit represents a pivotal moment in the future of our land management in the UK the chance to shape a progressive vision for food and land use. We need to reorient UK food, farming and land use towards the sustainable production of public goods, including health and ecosystem services.
While Brexit brings threats, particularly to the laws that protect our environment, this chance to change policy is internationally significant. While many countries have policy ingredients that the UK can draw on, none offers a clear recipe for success. If Britain succeeds, it could provide a model for much-needed reforms of the CAP across Europe.
CAP payments are currently vital to the economic sustainability of almost all farmers, and public funds should continue to go to farming. However subsidies have also worked to increase land prices, particularly in the UK, often ending up in the hands of land owners rather than farmers, and they do not go far enough to support public benefits. It is impossible to argue that public money should go to farmers simply because of the number of hectares of land they own or control.
Letter to the Government
On 14 July 2016, 85 UK organisations wrote to the David Davis MP, the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Prime Minister Theresa May to stress the important implications of Brexit on food and farming and urge the government to adopt common-sense food, farming and fishing policies that are good for jobs, health and the environment. You can read the letter here.
While the case for public payments for public goods is generally accepted as being much stronger than historic or area based payments, it is important to be cautious in assuming that we can take this for granted. It is key that a range of organisations work together to put pressure on our Government to ensure this happens.
On wider issues, discussions are starting to emerge on the implications of Brexit on access to land. Land values have been driven up dramatically over recent years, partly through the capitalisation of CAP subsidies, but also through speculation in land and investment that is free of inheritance tax. Wide financial uncertainty around the UK’s future role in the EU may continue to drive prices up due to increased investment in land as a safe bet. On the other hand, changes to how land and farming systems are valued, may lead to land with more capacity to provide public goods increasing in financial value.
Small farms have traditionally missed out on support. Within the UK, agricultural holdings under 5ha are excluded from CAP subsidies. A new agricultural policy has the potential to support small farms, but only if our current political leaders accept the wider benefits offered by smaller farms.
Labour is another hot topic, given the UK’s dependence on EU labour in agriculture. Particularly the larger horticultural enterprises are concerned about potential restrictions on migrant labour. However, if farms are forced to look closer to home for their labour, this could mean they will need to offer higher wages, more benefits and more attractive management structures and working conditions to recruit local workers. Of course, this could also lead to increased food prices.
While many of the opportunities and challenges are clear, the solutions are still emerging and nobody has all the answers. For a generation, agricultural policy thinking has been constrained by the politics and compromises of the CAP – not only in government but also in farming and among conservation, health, development and consumer groups. As much as anything, the need now is to explore new possibilities together, and discover whether there are frameworks that could square these sometimes competing interests. We face some interesting times!