With the surprising exception of Michael Gove. Not someone I have a lot of respect for, because of the clumsy nostalgic curriculum he forced on the country’s children when he was in charge of education. But, give him his due, he is currently asking some of the right questions about farming policy post Brexit. So I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that I agree with him that it would be good to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with subsidies targeted at encouraging farmers to produce more environmentally sensitive ways.
I also have no hesitation in saying that even if he stays as Environment Minister for 5 years and actually implements this excellent policy it won’t be enough to undo the damage to farming and to the environment caused by leaving the EU.
There are a number of big drivers which influence the economics of agriculture. The level of subsidies is significant but relatively small. The largest and far more influential factor is the price that food can be sold for. A close second in the cost of production.
If Britain leaves the EU and strikes new trade deals it is very hard to believe that any country will sign such a deal if it leaves out agriculture. So, despite the contradictory statements from UK Ministers, there is no doubt at all that leaving the EU means importing cheap food from abroad. Which might be fine if that food was produced by the same methods that UK farmers use. Much of it isn’t.
The most likely beneficiaries of increased sales to the UK are US farmers along with New Zealand and Australian ones. So start by assuming that UK sheep farmers are going to see tumbling prices for what they produce and many hill farmers are going to go out of business. As it happens if there was a gradual move away from sheep farming to other uses of upland farms then it would be a very good thing for the environment as sheep tend to close crop the land and leave it a low diversity treeless grassland. Widespread farming bankruptcies would not. The impact on upland rural communities would be quick and brutal.
When it comes to cattle the damage is likely to be much worse. In the US it is commonplace to put thousands of cattle into one shed and to keep them permanently indoors in a system of meat and milk production which is very similar to battery farming of chickens. The animals can’t turn around easily. They have all the food and water that they might need easily on hand and just stand there all day eating and moving little. The result is that they put on a lot of meat or produce a lot of milk very quickly. Huge quantities of sewage are produced which go far beyond what can be utilised on nearby farms so it has to be shipped out or processed or just allowed to leak into the rivers and then the oceans killing off wildlife by promoting blooms of algae. If one animal gets sick then it quickly spreads to all the others so the cattle have to be soaked in antibiotics to prevent illness.
The day the UK signs its magically wonderful new trade deal with the US a system of arbitration will come into existence which will be able to over-ride the decisions of parliaments in both countries. US corporate lawyers will therefore be able to insist that the UK government cannot pass laws that shuts out food produced by such ugly mass-produced methods. US beef and milk will therefore come into the UK at prices that few UK farmers will be able to compete with. The same will happen with pork. With chlorinated chicken. And with pesticide soaked grain harvests.
UK farmers may therefore find themselves in the interesting situation of being able to apply to Michael Gove’s department for a subsidy if they farm environmentally and being certain to go out of business if they do. The only way to deal with cheap competition is either to adopt the same methods and produce every bit as cheaply yourself or to find a niche market as a quality producer. There aren’t enough niche consumers to avoid carnage across UK agriculture.
At the same time as dealing with these pressures of falling prices farmers are going to be dealing with increased labour costs and serious labour shortages because of fresh immigration controls. This is not a description of a golden age of environmentally sound farming. It is a recipe for disaster.
All of which leaves me to wonder what motives Michael Gove could possibly have for re-launching himself as the green environment minister. Why would a politician promise farmers that they could keep their current subsidies for 5 years and then promise environmentalists that lovely green policies will be in place after that?
Could it be that there’s an election to be fought? Could it be that there is a career to relaunch? Could it be that Mr Gove thinks there are votes in what he is promising? Is it just possible that Gove thinks he can attract extra support for his nationalist Brexit dreams by claiming he can deliver a green paradise post Brexit? Is it just possible that his other Brexit promises are turning out to be such obvious lies that he needs some new ammunition? Is he worried about the farm vote? Is he worried about the green youth vote? Does he see himself reconstructing enough popularity to be well placed to take over from May if the Conservatives win a post Brexit election?
I hate to be cynical about Michael Gove’s motives in speaking out so well in favour of some sensible green policies. But the man does have form. And there is a much easier way of helping British farmers adapt to the needs of a new era. We could stay in the EU and reform the CAP. The measures he is proposing would meet with very widespread support from small French farmers and across Germany and Eastern Europe. So UK farmers could keep their high standards, their markets and their workforce – provided they don’t get seduced by the prospect of an easy cure all Brexit.