Food policy in the EU referendum.
If, and it is a big if, Britain votes to leave the European the post-mortem exercise must include the European Union’s colossal failure to communicate the positive impact it has on the lives of ordinary citizens. The area of food policy is a shining example of where this is true.
At its worst the Common Agriculture Policy is characterised by the “butter mountains” and “wine lakes” of the 1980s, where farmers were paid to produce food that there was no demand for. At its most comical the EU approach to food is associated with banning bananas that were too bendy (a directive that was repealed – no pun intended – in 2008).
The CAP has far wider implications, not just for farmers, but for all of us who appreciate the countryside. The payment structure incentivises farmers on a number of environmental matters. In this way, it recognises and encourages farming as a public good. CAP would need to be replaced with a British (or English) agriculture policy which, unless we were granted an extended timetable, would need to be developed and deployed within two years. This is ambitious and borders on the virtually impossible. Additionally, in these times of fiscal restraint it is unlikely that the same level of funding would be made available.
Like many aspects of the EU debate, the major challenge is we don’t fully know what the alternative will look like. UKIP painted a picture in their manifesto of what a modified Single Farm Payment would look like but, of course, this is silver lined. It offered farmers £80 per acre for lowland farms, capped at £120,000 per annum. This is considerably less than the €247 per hectare that Defra estimates as the current average. Organic farms were offered a 25 per cent premium on the SFP, potentially worth £20 per acre. Currently, however, farmers can receive £60 per hectre (1 acre is 2.5 hectres) under the Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme. Farmers who also choose to put solar panels on their land, currently incentivized, would lose their entitlement to SFP. One other significant change proposed by UKIP is the transfer of SFP to the farmer rather than land owner. This would be a significant benefit to those that rent rather than own land.
Another important impact for us all comes from access to the single market. Just over 60% of UK agricultural exports go to the European Union and therefore lower tariffs are absolutely critical for farmers. But equally, 70% of our agri-food imports come from the European Union. The trading tariffs enable consumers to enjoy the low prices they perhaps now take for granted. However, these are only two examples.
There cannot be an assumption that the public understands how the European Union impacts the food we eat and the countryside we enjoy. The onus will be on the industry to get on the front foot. The messages will need to be simple and rooted in everyday examples. Too often the debate is the purview of academics and bureaucrats. The guidelines will be ‘full and frank’ discussion and this will need to mean real and simple rather than technical and impenetrable.