The Common Agricultural Policy has failed the United Kingdom on two fronts. From a food production point of view we have become less self-sufficient; down from 74 per cent to 61 per cent. It is also failing environmentally. The CAP has evolved from the days when it was famous for subsidising food production – graphically highlighted by its propensity to build butter mountains and fill wine lakes. Today, farmers receive money mainly for managing their land. Increasingly, this approach is morphing into something far more indefensible – imposing common environmental standards right across the European landscape. This is self-evidently unworkable. What is good for the olive groves of Greece or the forests of Sweden cannot be right for the dairy farmers of Devon or the hill farmers of Wales.
Once we leave the EU we can leave the CAP behind and start afresh. By leaving the Customs Union we will escape the Common External Tariff. Economists estimate that food prices will fall, saving the average household over £300 a year. This will benefit every single citizen and potentially provide an £8 billion boost to the economy. We then have to think how this affects our own food producers.
Rodney Smith holds a world record. This British farmer, whose land overlooks Holy Island in Northumberland, took the crown from a New Zealander who had held it for five years. Mr Smith turned in a wheat yield of 16.52 tonnes per hectare – a tribute to his skill, the innate fertility of our soil and our benign weather.
As we prepare to leave the European Union and its stultifying, expensive and cumbersome Common Agricultural Policy, I believe that many more of our skilful farmers in the productive parts of the UK will grasp the opportunity to follow in Mr Smith’s footsteps. Freed from the absurd overcautious aversion to risk of the EU, successful farmers in the fertile regions of the UK will be able to produce more and better food. They will be able to embrace the latest innovative scientific advances in agricultural technology, currently denied to them by the EU.
Since New Zealand stopped substantial subsidies in 1983, there has been the most spectacular increase in productivity. Their 70 million sheep population has nearly halved, yet they export a similar quantity of meat. Wine exports alone have increased from $10 million in 1984/5 to $1.6 billion in 2016. Reacting to the market, farmers have created new industries. New Zealand had no deer industry and exported no venison in 1984; the national deer population is now nearly 2 million and exports are worth over $100 million.
There will however be some parts of the countryside where farmers cannot survive on food production alone and this will need addressing. Farmers in hilly areas and other marginal lands will be unable to compete with global food producers. Their farming activity does however provide a vital public good in maintaining and improving the countryside upon which rests a rural tourism industry worth £30 billion.
There are clear lessons to be learned from countries such as Switzerland. Particular services are remunerated through direct ecological payments with the aim of creating valuable plant and animal habitats. Farmers are rewarded for extensive meadow land, permanent flowery meadows, preserving natural field margins, reed beds, hedges, copses and wooded river banks amongst others.
The Swiss provide significant support for Alpine farmers, exceeding CAP payments. Many of these farmers would struggle to compete on the basis of food production alone, but are crucial to the environmental maintenance of the Alps. Every summer, large numbers of livestock move to the upland pastures and farmers are paid for farming in an environmentally-friendly manner.
The underlying understanding of this approach is that livestock farming provides the best tool for conservation efforts. If remote areas were to be abandoned in the UK, they will soon revert to scrub, with broken down stone walls, unmanaged bogs, hillsides covered in bracken and self-seeded trees populated only by carrion crows and magpies. As a consequence, such areas would not attract the visitors on which they depend. The idea that such areas should be “rewilded” with long extirpated predators is a Rousseauist fantasy which should not be encouraged and should absolutely not be supported with Government funds.
We give the EU £10 billion more than we get back, part of which is the £3 billion we receive for the CAP. So funding a rural policy, improving our rural environment, our soils and water, ensuring high animal welfare standards, managing floods, extending biodiversity, and delivering broadband and mobile phone services will all be eminently affordable. We will have the real freedom to design a policy tailored to our own industry, our own landscape and our own flora and fauna. Farmers in the fertile parts of the UK will be free to compete on level terms with world competitors using the very latest technologies. Public money will be more carefully targeted, ensuring even the most remote communities continue to prosper.
Freed of the dead hand of the EU and by leaving the Customs Union, we escape the Common External Tariff and every citizen will benefit from cheaper food. A genuine green revolution lies ahead of us. This new rural policy will work for everyone.