Farmers for Britain's Michael Seals on the wealth of opportunities that a new UK agricultural po
*Originally published in Farmers Weekly
The Brexit referendum is a momentous event, a once in a lifetime choice that will affect our industry more than any other. We’ve had debate with few facts, but a lot of emotion.
There are good points about being in a market of 500 million, however, the EU belongs to a bygone era as the world opens up. Future growth will come from countries such as China, a country of 1.36 billion people, and a world market of 7.1 billion. World trade has grown, there is an interdependency between nations. Look at your cars or tractors, they owe nothing to one country or even the EU, they are world products produced by global companies.
The CAP itself was generous in the past to UK agriculture, but that generosity is quickly diminishing with increasing interference, bureaucracy and inflexibility in a system that limits the power of the UK government and ministers to do anything but try to influence outcomes.
The Remain camp cites the benefits of common standards. But ask the pig and poultry industries if they feel standards are applied equally across the EU? While the system remains there is one rule for all, which is perfect for none.
This really is your decision. A vote to leave will mean changes for UK agriculture, but the alternative is to remain mired in an ever-decreasing support system riven with bureaucracy.
What will a UK agricultural policy look like when we leave? David Cameron has clearly stated, “the UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment support”.
But, Mr Cameron will not be PM beyond this parliament. My vision for our industry outside of the EU is a thriving world leader, unfettered by bureaucracy, yet supported in ways that encourage innovation, competitiveness, youth and investment.
When we leave, the big issues to deliver that vision will be trade and support.
We will inevitably maintain trade. Many outside countries trade with the EU. Last year, we exported more than £11.5bn worth of food to the EU, but we imported food products worth about £31bn. We have an annual trade deficit with the EU in food. This is part of more than half-a-trillion pounds worth of trade back and forward between the EU and UK, leaving Britain with an overall deficit. There is no benefit to any country for this to stop. Success will be having a product that is demanded at a price that is competitive.
In terms of support, this is a greater unknown. We all know government has priorities beyond our industry. The Treasury and others could see this as an opportunity to save more by cutting agricultural support. But farming unions and the devolved administrations will all have an input; there will be a UK agricultural policy. The challenge will be to find new ways of supporting this industry as it develops and grows away from the stifling bureaucracy and declining area payment which will continue should we stay in the EU.
A new farm policy
What could a future support system consist of?
First, government must continue to invest in science and innovation, to give us the technology for success.
Second, farming has always been a risky business because of the weather and price volatility. I see opportunities for government generated insurance schemes, such as those in Canada.
Third, an area payment based on environmental measures, possibly broadened to include animal welfare, but one which is simpler and more rounded.
Fourth, marketing, our biggest issue in sectors such as the dairy industry. Developing a government-sponsored marketing body alongside USA-style marketing orders will pave the way to a better future.
Finally, to become that world leader we will expect government to support industry initiatives, such as government-funded endemic disease eradication, supporting young entrants, older farmers exits and, more particularly, capital investment in new plant and fixtures.
All this is possible, only if we leave. Change will come gradually and will transform UK agriculture.
If we look at ourselves as an industry today, the CAP provides billions in direct payments and bureaucratic grant aid through the Rural Development Programme for England, yet none of it is working. We are struggling drastically across almost all sectors.
To take control of our future we need a vision and ministers with their civil servants to start thinking policy ideas through from first principles. Then we can deliver the change British farming needs.
Voting to leave will mean change, and yes, our industry will be affected. But in five years’ time the only question people will ask themselves is why we didn’t do it sooner?
Don’t listen to the fear mongers, the only fear in voting to leave is fear itself.