The British Labour Party shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, Luke Pollard MP, has highlighted his concerns that the current Conservative government has an underlying agenda to fundamentally change UK agriculture.
In an interview with the Irish Farmers Journal, the Plymouth, Sutton and Devon-port MP outlined how actions speak louder than words, and those actions point towards a future industry made up of large-scale, globally competitive farms, with the small family farm structure gone.
“I am very concerned we are sleepwalking into a scenario where agriculture will fundamentally change. It does not appear in the Conservative manifesto, or in speeches from the Environment Secretary, but we can see it being played out right in front of us,” he said.
The details will be masked behind a jamboree of flag waving and celebration that we have achieved a new trade deal
He initially refers to the refusal of the Tory government to enshrine in law that imported food must meet the same production standards expected of UK farmers.
While in the short-term government might ensure that food produced to lower standards is not allowed in, he warns that revision clauses built into deals mean changes are gradual.
“The details will be masked behind a jamboree of flag waving and celebration that we have achieved a new trade deal. We are risking deals that deliberately undercut our farmers,” he said.
His second argument relates to changes being made to the Basic Payment Scheme in England, with all farms facing a 5% cut in 2021, a 50% reduction by 2024, and total payments being removed by 2028.
While the UK government has promised funding for grant schemes to improve productivity and invest in slurry stores, the majority of future funding is expected to be targeted at a new agri-environment measures within the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
While he supports the concept of public money for public goods, Pollard believes the changes are being implemented too quickly and have the potential to cause a “massive economic shock” to family farm businesses.
A lot of consultants will need to be brought in, and a lot of costs paid
By the time of the next general election, scheduled for 2024 (he believes it might be in 2023), he fears the UK government will be spending much less than the £3bn that currently goes to support agriculture.
And with support moving towards agri-environment schemes, he questions just how much farmers will benefit. “A lot of consultants will need to be brought in, and a lot of costs paid. It won’t be money going into farm businesses as it is at the moment – it will be money going to farmers that might go straight out”, he suggested.
Pollard is also concerned about the impact on farmers who do not own their land (such as tenant farmers). If a farmer needs to plant hedges etc to avail of ELMS money, they will need agreement from the landowner. “The changes give landlords a lot more power in their relations with a tenant farmer,” he said.
As part of the plan to phase out BPS, the UK government has also promised to deliver an exit scheme in 2022 to help farmers retire from the industry. It will involve a lump sum payment in lieu of future BPS monies, and will “encourage more farmers to leave the industry”, said Pollard.
He believes all these issues, from trade deals through to schemes encouraging farmers to leave the industry, are linked together.
“If your view is that farming is inefficient, lacks industrialised scale, and you need to remove a certain number of farmers, then actually importing food from abroad delivers that. Also, the carbon intensity of food production is held by a different country, and the public subsidy costs are held by a different country other than the UK,” he concluded.
There are a number of options that could help remove barriers to trade between Britain and NI created as a result of the Irish protocol, but as a starting point, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to see it as a priority, maintained Luke Pollard.
“Five months in, it is clearly not working, but the government seems to be quite happy ignoring it, and hoping it goes away”, he said.
Pollard believes that part of the problem is that Prime Minister Johnson was elected on the back of the slogan of “get Brexit done”, so it is not in his interests to reveal that is not the case. “Hard graft and difficult conversations – that’s what I’m just not seeing,” said Pollard.