The Agricultural Christian Fellowship (ACF) promotes Christian perspectives on food, farming and the environment. In the past, this led the ACF to collaborate with the Arthur Rank Centre (ARC) to establish the Farming Community Network to support farmers affected by difficulties. The ACF has also worked with the UK Food Group, a network of development farming and environmental NGOs, on international trade and food issues.
Recently the Government issued a consultation paper called “Health and Harmony in a Green Brexit” about the future of farming. The ACF responded to this focussing on three issues that we feel are of particular importance and on which we have particular knowledge: the future of farm support; the future of farms in the wider community; and the future of farming and trade.
FUTURE OF FARM SUPPORT
At present, the European Union (EU) funded farm Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) makes the difference between a future in farming and farms failure for a significant number of farm businesses, as 55 per cent of UK total income from farming comes from EU Common Agriculture Policy support. This support goes to all farms in Europe in proportion to the number of “entitlements” the farm has which in turn depends roughly on the size of the farm.
There are reasons for this. First, mindful of war-time hunger, policy supports farmers when food is cheap to prevent it becoming scarce and expensive. Second is the purchasing power of large corporation and supermarkets – in 1973 independent grocers accounted for 30 per cent of sales compared to just 2 per cent in 2017 – puts farmers in a poor bargaining position. The CEO of Sainsburys made plain that this trend will continue, when explaining the proposed ASDA merger, as being designed to increase their ‘buying power’.
An important feature of the present BPS is that payments go to all farmers, rich and poor, according to the number of entitlements they hold, provided they adhere to “good agricultural and environmental conditions". This means the total costs can be known in advance, because it is determined by the number of entitlements and the value given to them in any one year. It also means that environmental conditions will be fulfilled uniformly across the countryside. Very importantly the system is inclusive and does not marginalize farmers who are struggling.
In contrast to BPS, the current generation of ‘environmental schemes’, aimed at supporting conservation, are exclusive and discriminatory. If they become the model for the delivery of farm support, those adept at navigating "schemes", or able to employ others to do it, will likely derive most of the benefits. The ACF could never condone this. These schemes are also typically difficult to understand, take hours in application, and are competitive. They are then hard to navigate and apply. Apart from the human aspects of this, we see no environmental sense in the fate of farmland biodiversity being attached only to ‘scheme-clever’ owners, or the management of the streams at the head of a river system similarly determined so that some streams pollute the others.
The Defra consultation paper is critical of the "greening rules" attached to the direct payments recently introduced by the EU. While these are not competitive, they also suffer similar problems to the Natural England schemes that require significant time investment and cause stress. One problem is that once policy moves beyond the most generalized environmental measures, centrally directed schemes become more and more complicated and inappropriate. It is simply not possible to decide on the best way to assist a declining bird species in a particular area, or to envisage other environmental opportunities or problems from a central office. In an earlier era, assisted drainage schemes were designed and approved in situ with the farmer.
In some quarters, there is an assumption that a struggling farmer is an inefficient one. However, such a farmer may not have inherited much capital, may be a tenant farmer, may be a new entrant, or even have been ill. As the consultation paper reminds us, while in the past it has been perfectly acceptable to measure farm efficiency in terms of money in, money out and cost of product, there is now much more at stake: water catchment, flood control and water purity, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and landscape.
Finally, many farm incomes cannot sustain a gently retiring generation and a younger one. As a result, only 13 per cent of farmers are under 35 years old and the average age has crept up to 59. Comparisons with some other industries highlights the problem.
Recommendations: Based on our understanding and analysis, we offered the following recommendations, that:
· Farm support continues to be based on existing entitlements, but that reform trims payments to the wealthiest 15 per cent and savings are redistributed to maintain and increase the diversity of farm holdings, including those with holdings of 1 acre or more – who are delivering high levels of public goods: such as landscape, water management or wildlife habitat.
· Conservation schemes are designed on site by farmers and locally based advisors.
· Farm ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ measurements are developed to include all the functions of farms and not just those which has been customarily paid for such as crops and meat.
· Farming in England needs a new emphasis on a locally based advisory service linked to agricultural research.
· Drawing on lessons learned in Europe, that the government gives special attention to the handover process of older farmers to younger ones, including share farming, young entrants schemes and support for older farmers to retire with secure housing.
FUTURE OF FARMS IN THE WIDER COMMUNITY
‘Health and Harmony’ makes reference to the importance of rural communities and recognises that those who live and work in rural areas should have ‘the same opportunity as those in urban areas’. The ACF is however concerned that the consultation document offers few clear policy proposals for tackling rural poverty, housing and employment.
Farm businesses are increasingly diversified. Sympathetically converted farm buildings provide start- up opportunities for rural business that generate employment or housing. Farmers maintain footpaths that ensure access and host huge numbers of visitors in bed and breakfast, self-contained farm cottages, caravan parks and camping sites. Increasing numbers of farmers are also involved in retailing and processing farm produce. Farmers also host school visits and CARE farming schemes for the vulnerable.
The ACF however believes that with appropriate government recognition and support, farming families can do much more to help the government to address social, economic and health-related challenges in the UK.
Recommendations: Based on our understanding and analysis, we offer the following recommendations, that:
· The government gives increased imaginative recognition for the importance of farming and the role farming plays in rural communities, and the potential for doing more with special and vulnerable groups and school children to improve health, wellbeing, and appreciation of the countryside and how food is produced;
· The government provides increased levels of financial support and improvements in the current regulatory culture to support farm diversification and improve opportunities that will ensure a future for younger families to live and work in rural areas.
FUTURE OF FARMING AND TRADE
The ACF recognises the importance of farmers ‘selling well’ and that for some, including sheep farmers in Wales, this requires continued access to EU markets. The ACF is also aware that in 1994 the UK produced 79 per cent of its own vegetables while today this amount has fallen to 55 per cent and that overall 30 per cent of the food that we eat comes from the EU while an additional 18 per cent comes from the rest of the world.
Looking forward, the ACF has two primary concerns: that future trade agreements do not undermine farming in the UK; and that it is neither honest nor sensible to make domestic environmental improvement a major plank of policy if at the same time our trade policy accelerates environmental degradation and social inequality elsewhere. In this connection it needs to be borne in mind that if the UK were trading in an open market under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, it might be hard to favour environmentally sound products – since WTO rules are not about how things are produced.
There is currently much talk about export opportunities, however ACF’s experience over a generation and learning with civil society organisations in Europe, North America and Africa has made us aware that farmers seldom derive much long-term benefit from having their products exported. They are often wiser to focus their energies on the potential offered by local markets. This is of course why there is a fair-trade movement.
Based on our understanding and analysis, we offer the following recommendations, that:
· The government ensures that trade agreements allow farmers in the UK to sell to EU counties and UK consumers to continue to benefit from access to food produced in the European Union.
· The government ensures that future trade agreements with countries outside the EU do not export environmental and social costs worldwide or damage or destroy parts of UK farming. Very often cheaper food production is linked with exploitation of people and environment.