Public money for public goods… and food?

Published 23 March 2019

agri crop spraying webAs the Brexit deadline fast approaches it is as yet unclear as to whether the United Kingdom will be granted an extension by the European Union. Working on the assumption that the UK eventually withdraws from the EU, it is intended that the Basic Payment and Countryside Stewardship schemes will be replaced by a new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).

Autumn 2018 saw the publication of the first Agriculture Bill and policy statement which reaffirmed Michael Gove’s commitment to “public money for public goods”. Details of the new ELMs have thus far been sparse, but whilst the new scheme is developed over the best part of a decade we a more results-based approach to emerge.

So what are “public goods”? It might include clean air and water, protection of rare species, enhanced landscapes and beautiful spaces. And food production…? Well, there is very little mention of it in the Agriculture Bill. Indeed, since the publication of the Bill many discussions have been held around concerns that the Bill is more about the delivery of environmental benefit than providing a framework for the production and supply of food in the UK. 

As a result of this approach there is a danger that farmers will be forced to focus too intently on how they might obtain income under ELMs – particularly those whose Basic Payment claim formed a substantial part of their net income.  Food production must continue to be a primary goal for the farming industry and must not be side-lined. The risk is obvious: a low level of self-sufficiency leads to over-dependence on other nations, and when volatile conditions affect the UK’s relations with these nations a well-structured farming industry becomes critical to UK food supply.

So what is the solution?

The answer lies at two levels; the first involves an industry wide effort to build a brand for farming. Educating the UK population about the passion that goes into producing high quality food to exceptional standards is no small task, but it is a crucial step in persuading the public that the production of food in the UK is in itself a “public good”.

The second is for each farming business to be as strong, sustainable and as resilient to change as they can be. The focus must be on profitability, independence and adaptability, as well as being able to spot opportunity for adding value to products. Minimise over heads; set goals and budgets; learn from others; understand your markets; embrace innovation; and invest in your people.

We each have a role to play in promoting a balance between “public goods” and the future of UK food production.

Charlotte Webster | Senior Rural Surveyor

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