Think-tank calls for end to farmers’ food subsidies
Ministers should phase out all subsidies to farmers for food production by 2025 and instead focus on paying them for other activities such as protecting the environment, one of the UK’s leading think-tanks has recommended.
According to the report by Policy Exchange, published on Tuesday, a shift away from production subsidies would also free up public funds for other purposes such as the National Health Service.
The report, entitled Farming Tomorrow, recommends that the UK unilaterally lower agricultural tariffs with other countries after Brexit, to allow for cheaper imports of agricultural goods from all over the world, not just the EU. As an EU member, the UK is currently obliged to levy the same tariffs as other member states on food imports from outside the EU.
Warwick Lightfoot, director of research at the centre-right think-tank, said it was vital to “think quite carefully” about the objectives of farm subsidies after Brexit.
“It seemed to us that the direction should be more towards sustainable rational goals — the structure of the landscape and its appearance — and getting away from some of the oddities that have emerged under the Common Agricultural Policy,” Mr Lightfoot said.
However, Guy Smith, vice-president of the NFU, the farmers’ union, queried whether the UK should allow itself to become more dependent on importing food from other parts of the world where standards were different. “We would argue that isn’t a sensible policy,” he said.
The report mirrors some of the goals that Michael Gove, secretary of state for the environment, farming and rural affairs, set out in July in his first big policy speech after taking office following June’s general election. The government has guaranteed to maintain the £3bn that farmers receive annually in subsidies from the EU until at least 2022. Mr Gove then made it clear that future subsidies would depend on farmers’ offering wider public benefits such as a better environment.
However, the report from Policy Exchange — of which Mr Gove was a founder — sets out a still more radical approach. The report says that all direct subsidies for food production and income support for farmers should be phased out over five years from 2020.
“We should be accepting we don’t have a comparative advantage in the sort of meat you can get from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, which is a high-quality product at a fraction of the price we can produce it here,” Mr Lighftoot said.
The report suggests that, if its policy leads some farmers to give up farming, there should be a mechanism for redesignating agricultural land for alternatives such as housing and sharing some of the land-value gains with farmers.