Comment: London committed to changing farm support for the UK

By all accounts the UK government remains on track to fundamentally change the nature of the support made available to farmers in our new, post-Brexit world.

Reading between the lines of what Department of Farming, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) secretary of state George Eustice and his two predecessors – Theresa Villiers MP and Michael Gove MPMichael Gove MP – have been preaching, we are looking at an option that will combine some form of insurance policy with environmental/conservation payments.

Of course, the real driver here is a commitment, on the part of the UK government, to keep in place a cheap food policy, designed to keep consumers happy. This, in turn, raises the prospect of farmers being caught in the middle: receiving poor farmgate returns at one end of the spectrum while reliant on a nebulous support measure at the other end. In a worst case scenario this could all end up very badly for primary producers. But the reality is that you cannot have a cheap food policy on one hand and expect farmers to do the job for nothing on the other.

For the record, there was never a formal link between EU food output and the monies coming from Brussels by way of the Basic Payment. The World Trade Organisation forced this scenario on Brussels at the time of the Fischler reform package back in 2003. Courtesy of de-coupling, agri support was then made available to ensure that farmers maintained the highest environmental standards within our rural areas.

But the practical reality of life on the ground, however, is somewhat different. Every beef producer in Northern Ireland will quickly confirm that the Basic Payment is a vital component of his business cash flow.

Without it, he or she could not survive. In fact, most years end up with the total Single Payment budget for Northern Ireland equating to the pre-tax profits made by the farming industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, farmers are still expected to sustain the highest possible environmental standards – in order to maintain a countryside which all tax payers can enjoy. Cross compliance inspections are a reality and those farmers found not to be meeting all of the required standards are penalised courtesy of Single Farm Payment deductions.

So, as it turns out, the UK government is currently getting the best of both worlds: cheap food and a countryside that is fit for purpose, in terms of the biodiversity to be found therein and its immense conservation value. So why change a system that is working – at least moderately well?