Experts are warning that the post-Brexit farming plan is based in blind optimism and that it will increase the UK’s reliance on imports for food. The warning comes as the knife is taken to the £1,8 billion of direct payments to English farmers by 2027.
A parliamentary report has referred to the ‘blind optimism’ of ministers saying that their plans for the industry could result in many small and tenant farmers being forced out of business.
The farmers who currently receive direct payments under the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, will see these fall to half by the early part of 2025 and removed completely by 2027. The Government intends to shift to a new plan that focuses on productivity and improved stewardship of the countryside
The House of Commons committee report said that George Eustice’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has not yet done enough to gain farmers’ trust in its ability to successfully deliver the programme. It continued saying that ministers were over-optimistic about the likelihood of making English farms more productive.
The cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee went on to say that encouraging farmers to free up land for environmental purposes, such as woodland, is likely to be that England ends up importing more of its food. This they say will make Britain more reliant on food imports and often from countries with much lower standards, and could in the long run force prices up in the shops.
Farmers currently work on wafer thin margins with an average farm returning an annual profit of around £22,000, changes to the subsidy will force those at the lower end of the scale out of business.
The government have defended that plans saying that Defra intends to match the overall £2.4bn in subsidies provided annually by CAP to England’s farmers, while steadily reducing the proportion going in direct payments, based on the amount of land farmed.
The government’s plans, the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI) and Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), will see an increasing share of the cash linked to improving the environment, protecting the countryside and enhancing animal health and welfare. It will also they say be used to boost the productivity of the farming sector
But the report found that the scheme was “beset with many of the same issues that have undermined ambitious government programmes in recent years”.
Committee Chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Conservative MP for the Cotswolds, said: “We have known we were replacing the CAP since 2016 and still we see no clear plans, objectives or communications with those at the sharp end, farmers, in this multi-billion pound, radical overhaul of the way land is used and, more crucially, food is produced in this country.”
He continued saying that farmers had been “left in the dark”, with failures in Defra’s business planning undermining the certainty they need.
Sir Geoffrey went on to issue a warning: “The UK is also already a large net importer of food and we heard in evidence that the ELMS’ vague ambition to ‘maximise the value to society of the landscape’ may in reality mean that increases further. The recent energy price crisis should be a salutary warning of the potential risks to the availability and affordability of food if the UK becomes even more reliant on food imports.”
Jim McMahon, Labour’s Shadow Environment Sbn09 ocv 57/8+-548ecretary said the government was “falling far short” on support for farmers, with “trade deals that undercut our rural businesses, leaving them exposed and rightly feeling let down”.
“Just this week, the environment secretary tried to dodge responsibility for making sure farmers get a fair deal from major retailers, despite rocketing food and production prices,” said Mr McMahon. “For our country to thrive, we need to see more food grown at home, to a high standard and through sustainable processes – but the government isn’t listening.”
But Mr Eustice said Defra disagreed with many of the report’s points, which he said failed to take account of recent developments. He continued: “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 defending the plans and the information shared with farmers, Eustice said: “In December, I set out comprehensive details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, including full payment rates, and we published an in-depth analysis of UK food security and agricultural output.
“In the past week we’ve shared further details of the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes and announced a major increase in payment rates for those farmers involved in existing agri-environment schemes.”
Many in the farming sector will be concerned by the lack of real detail as to how changes will affect them, as they will the committee report which points to the UK’s reliance on food imports’.
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