Time for a UK agricultural policy that doesn’t subsidise the rich

Now that the UK is leaving the disastrous Common Agricultural Policy, let's transform our farming for good.

Alex Scrivener
8 August 2016

image: Public Domain, Wikimedia.

Let’s get one thing straight. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a disaster. It is essentially a £50 billion welfare system for the landed gentry and other big landowners across Europe. While people who genuinely need public funds find their benefits cut to the bone, these people get huge amounts of public money for doing absolutely nothing. It amounts to one of the most glaring transfers of money from poor to rich in the UK. The CAP has also been disastrous for people in the global south. For decades, Europe dumped excess agricultural produce into markets in the global south, ruining the livelihoods of local farmers who could not compete with the artificially cheap imports. But cleverly, through the WTO, rich countries have ensured that poor countries cannot raise equivalent subsidy programmes of their own. For example, India has been castigated for its food security policy that gives cheap food to the poor, while relatively rich EU farmers gets huge sums for doing not very much at all.

So given all of this, you would think that leaving the EU could actually be a positive thing for agriculture. Free from the shackles of the CAP, we might finally get a fairer system. Right?

Wrong. Theoretically of course it is possible that Andrea Leadsom, the new secretary of state at DEFRA, the government department in charge of agriculture and the environment, could spearhead a radical progressive programme of subsidy reform. But all the political indications suggest this is highly unlikely.

For a start, there will be a huge lobbying effort from bodies like the National Farmers Union and others who represent big agricultural and landowning interests to keep the free cash flowing to them. They will undoubtedly be helped by the fact that some people in government personally benefit from subsidies. It was revealed yesterday that the environment minister, Lord Gardiner, has interests in a farm that receives £49,000 a year in agricultural subsidies. Leadsom herself has also accepted money from someone who gets over £450,000 a year from the scheme. Iain Duncan Smith’s wife’s family got £159,000 and the Queen claimed £686,000 in 2014

Even within the EU, the UK refused to implement more progressive parts of the CAP. For example, the UK no longer gives subsidies to small farmers with under 5 hectares of land and has not implemented a cap on payments to large farms. Outside the CAP, the UK is free to further stack subsidies in favour of the rich. This is especially the case considering the fact that as the economy enters post-Brexit blues, there is likely to be less money to go round. If the government doesn’t cut subsidies for its rich friends and donors, then the alternative is to cut the subsidies linked to environmental protection, which would be a disaster.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. First we need to untie subsidies from landownership to ensure that wealthy landowners are not getting huge welfare handouts regardless of whether what they do has any social benefit. We must reform agricultural subsidies in a way that promotes a more sustainable farming model. Subsidies should only be given to those farms that practice high environmental standards. There is also an argument that more could be done to support smaller-scale farmers who do not enjoy the economies of scale that industrial-scale farms do if they are willing to follow best environmental practice. Implementing a ceiling for subsidy payments would help save money and level the playing field a bit in this regard. The Landworkers Alliance has estimated that even a fairly lenient cap on payments of £120,000 would save £400 million a year, money that could be spent on fostering a much fairer and more ethical food system.

It is also a scandal that farms that pump healthy animals with antibiotics are given handouts. These farming practices are contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the extent that we now face the dawn of a terrifying new post-antibiotic era. This must end.

We could also link subsidies to more stringent animal welfare standards. The taxpayer should not be paying farmers to subject animals to the cruel and unusual punishment that is battery farming.

It is also important to ensure that whatever agricultural subsidies we decide to retain do not end up harming the livelihoods of farmers in the global south. Subsidised British produce must not end up being sold at below cost prices in the markets of Beijing or Bangui.

In theory, the sky is the limit in terms of what we can achieve. In practice, however, we are limited by the blinkers of a myopic political elite constrained by what is considered acceptable to influential landowners. Campaigners should fight to overcome this and push for a UK food system that is fair and ecologically sound for both producers and consumers.

This piece first appeared on the Global Justice Now blog.

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