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The issue of Britain’s farming future post-Brexit has returned to the spotlight since the passing of the government’s Agriculture Bill on Monday, which lays out the framework for future agricultural policy.

The bill succeeds in identifying the opportunities Britain has outside the EU, and makes good suggestions as to how to exploit these opportunities. Those who criticise the Bill fail to recognise two important points. 

First, they fail to see that EU membership has been bad for British farmers. Just this week, the EU has imposed $4 billion of tariffs on American goods coming into the EU, from machinery to food. As part of this, tariffs will be imposed on tractors. Since the American tractor giant John Deere accounts for 31% of British tractors, this tariff would have had a negative effect on British farmers if we were staying in the EU.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has similarly hurt British farming. It hands out cash to farmers who plough up rich and delicate natural environments, paying the largest landowners the highest sums. The CAP has meant that small, struggling farmers have no choice but to turf up hedgerows and meadows, or see their businesses consumed by lean, mean, profit making machines.

The problem with the CAP is that it does not recognise the link between production and sustainable farming practices. Top soil erosion, for example, has been exacerbated by the industrialisation which has occurred due to the CAP, and now threatens future productive potential. Likewise, the EU’s subsidies to hill farmers to cut down trees to farm more sheep has led to an increase in flooding. Trees act as a natural drag on floodwaters, and the destruction of our native woodland is largely owing to poor agricultural policy.

Thankfully, the new Agriculture Act will mean that the direct payments of the CAP to the largest landowners will be gradually phased out, and replaced with subsidies paying farmers and landowners for protecting ‘public goods’. This will mean we have a system which encourages farmers to protect natural habitats rather than destroy them. Farmers recognise the importance of this too. They more than most understand how integral a healthy ecosystem is to the production of food. The Agriculture Act is a positive first step towards a post-Brexit vision for British farming.

But there is much more that could be done to fulfil the aims of the Act, namely to support British farmers to produce high quality food in a sustainable way. For example, the government should reverse the EU’s requirement to have a fully qualified vet present at every slaughterhouse. This law has led to the closing down of many small-scale abattoirs which can’t afford the cost of employing a full-time vet. In turn, this meant yet more industrialisation of farming practice, as fewer and larger farms became the customers of fewer and larger abattoirs.

On the issue of subsidies, we can take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book. All tax breaks and subsidies for Kiwi farmers were abolished in 1985. But through better pasture management and top soil creation, farming in New Zealand has become considerably more productive. Since the removal of any state support, sheep numbers have halved, and yet the productivity of those sheep farms has increased by 161%. New Zealand shows that sustainability does not have to mean less production, and that liberal trade rules can subsequently lead to better practice.

Second, the agriculture policy is criticised on the basis that it doesn’t protect UK food standards in any future trading agreements we make post-Brexit, particularly with the US. Concerns have been raised about the differing food standards between British and American produce. What passes as legal practice over there is outlawed here. The argument that an FTA would lead to British farmers being undercut by cheaper American food is well trodden. However, it is flawed.

Allowing tariff-free imports of American food will not only lead to a net welfare gain for consumers, but it will be good for British farmers.

Those who cry foul over the prospect of waves of chlorinated chicken coming into the UK fail to grasp what any future trade deal with the US would be like. Firstly, they do not understand that trade is a two way affair. Just as American farmers would be able to sell their produce in our country, so too would British farmers be able to sell their food to American consumers. The opening of the American market, currently untapped and bordered off by crippling EU tariffs would be a huge win for British farming. Added to this is the fact that 80% of British consumers don’t support importing chlorinated chicken in the first place. It seems that consumers in this country will, on the whole, continue to buy British anyway.

Cheaper food options for British consumers does not have to be bad news for British farmers. An FTA which includes agri-products will mean that British farmers will have to become more innovative and forward looking in their farming practices. This does not mean more intensification of British farming. Quite the opposite. As has been established, the protection of the environment goes hand in hand with agricultural productivity. Increased competition, therefore, would only further the ability and capacity of our farms to protect and diversify our natural landscapes, enabling further sustainable production.

Britain needs an agricultural policy which recognises the benefits of free trade, and simultaneously sees the gains in productivity of radical sustainability. The abolition of barriers to trade, adequate support for the protection of our environment, and the removal of harmful subsidies associated with the CAP will ensure British farmers can go from strength to strength in the years ahead.

Lachlan is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: David Wright]