You have to wade through a fair amount of fertiliser in this game (journalism, I mean) but this weekend’s government announcement that it would guarantee European Union farm subsidies until 2020 came very close to overlapping the top of my wellies.
While it does allow an element of comfort for the immediate post-Brexit future, there are three important points which the spin doctors completely failed to mention – the first is that there are no guarantees about anything after 2020, EU farm subsidies will continue to be paid by Brussels until almost 2020 anyway, and there has to be a general election in or before 2020.
At the same time that our MPs were chanting their predictable hallelujah chorus about this “Brexit guarantee,” a far more significant announcement was coming from the National Trust. Last week the Trust put forward a suggestion about agricultural subsidies which had most farmers, and government ministers, spluttering in disbelief.
The National Trust might previously have been thought of as the bank-of-last-resort for hard-up aristocrats looking for a way to spruce up their stately home. It had certainly never been seen as a hot-bed of revolutionary subversion. And yet now it wants to break the 43-year link between taxpayers’ money and food production.
Ever since Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, our farmers have benefited from one of the biggest tax-and-spend schemes the world has ever seen. Introduced in the aftermath of post-war famine in Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy encouraged food production ahead of all else. Food is now abundant and cheap. But the impact on the countryside has been catastrophic, as farms industrialised, and science and technology made the face of rural Cornwall unrecognisable to those who knew it only 50 years ago – 60% of native species have declined over this period.
Now that we are on our way out of Europe, Westminster rather than Brussels will be deciding a national strategy for food and farming. We do not know what will happen to the £3billion subsidies after 2020. It does look as if hundreds of thousands of European workers who pick fruit and vegetables, doing hard, low-paid jobs, may lose the right to come to Britain.
That is why the debate which the National Trust has now joined is so important. Because the Trust not only wants to use Brexit as an opportunity to end payments for owning land – it wants to divert that money to reward farmers who improve the environment and help wildlife.
According the Trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh: “The subsidy system is broken. It is not working. Farmers are going out of business. The state of wildlife is in steep decline and large parts of that are because of intensive agriculture.
“The vote to leave the EU allows us to think radically about the future of the entire system.
“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but which are valued and needed by the public. The current system rewards people for the hectares they own, with very inadequate standards for wildlife and the environment,” she said.
The National Farmers Union warned that such approach risks increasing food prices. “Farmers take their responsibilities as custodians of the countryside seriously,” it said. “But in this debate we must not forget that food production is vital. We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food.
“To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself.”
But there are some very good reasons why the political classes would be wise to listen to the National Trust. It has more than four million card-carrying, subscription paying members. If it was a political party, it would be more than eight times bigger than any of the mainstream combatants.
The National Trust also owns more than 600,000 acres of farmland and has more than 2,000 tenants. It is Britain’s largest farmer.