Why change a support system that is working – up to a point?

The UK government’s approach to supporting agriculture never ceases to amaze me.

It looks now as if Whitehall will stop funding direct payments to farmers post 2020 and replace these with some form of insurance scheme. Of course, the real driver here is a commitment 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. 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.

Currently, there is no 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 is now only available to ensure that farmers maintain 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, for example, will quickly confirm that the Basic Payment is a vital component of his business cash flow. Without it, he 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?