Wed, Apr 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Brexit to trigger UK farm policy overhaul and EU funding gap

Payments to British farmers are likely to be cut post-Brexit, meaning that an overhaul of farming policy is on the cards, while the EU farm budget might be cut

By Nigel Hunt  /  Reuters, LONDON

Britain is expected to radically overhaul agricultural policy after it leaves the EU and the bloc might have to make changes too when it loses Britain’s net contributions to the region’s farming budget.

For the first time in decades, farmers in Britain will have to fight for a slice of British government funds with departments such as health and education once Brussels hands over the purse strings for farming budgets to London.

Britain’s exit also spells trouble for EU farmers as the country puts more into the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) than it takes out, meaning subsides for farmers on the continent could also fall unless the funding gap is plugged.

British farmers have been shielded by a powerful farming lobby within Europe and benefit from EU subsidies, preferential trade deals and access to cheap seasonal labor, but they fear they will be losers on all three fronts in a post-Brexit world.

“The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers, but actually brought a good deal for us as well. Without them we are more vulnerable,” said Nigel Miller, who has a sheep and cattle farm near Galashiels in Scotland’s Borders region.

“The reality is, as a farmer, I don’t see the UK government expending a lot of negotiating capital to protect agriculture. Their main issue when they look for trade deals will be financial services, banking, etc,” Miller said.

Britain voted to leave the 28-nation EU in a referendum in June last year. It has two years to sort out the terms of the divorce before it comes into effect in March 2019.

In 2015, British farmers received 3.25 billion euros (US$3.5 billion at the current exchange rate) from the EU’s agriculture fund in direct payments based chiefly on the amount of land they farm, essentially a form of income support that does not take individual needs into account.

The government has guaranteed payments will be maintained until 2020, but British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Andrea Leadsom in February said there would be a major policy overhaul when the EU subsidies stop.

On average, British farmers get about £15,000 (US$18,615) per year from direct payments and an EU rural development fund. For some, direct payments account for 70 percent of their income.

However, a significant chunk goes to wealthy individuals who own a lot of land.

An investigation by environmental lobby group Greenpeace showed that in 2015 the top 100 recipients of EU direct payments in Britain received more in total than the bottom 55,119 recipients combined.

Imperial College London policy analysis professor Berkeley Hill said any overhaul should ensure funds go to farmers making decisions that benefit the environment, or help them cope with disasters such as flooding or foot-and-mouth disease.

“It has the potential to be quite radical. What is the taxpayer getting in return for all this money? Most of it does not go to poor farmers,” Hill said.

Greenpeace campaigner Hannah Martin hopes the government will reshape Britain’s food and farming policy so payments are for the “common good,” rather than just rewarding landowners for owning land.

“That means, landowners getting the money are doing positive things like boosting rural economies, ensuring food production is genuinely sustainable, reducing flood-risk, maintaining healthy soils and protecting biodiversity,” she said.

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