Written evidence submitted by Malcolm Read (FS0096)

Dear Sir Robert                                               Tuesday 23rd August 2022

 

I write further to my letter to you of 8th June and ask that that letter and this one be placed before your committee as written evidence for their forthcoming inquiry into UK food security which I was delighted to hear you announce yesterday on Radio 4.

 

The Scottish Government website accurately describes the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) as a safety net for farmers and crofters. Over the last 20  years farmgate prices, particularly in the arable sector, have been unsustainable, but SPS and then BPS have bridged the gap between profit and loss, thus enabling farmers not only to keep their heads above water but also to invest in the technology which has kept them at the forefront of efficiency and productivity worldwide. A proud position  which this country has held ever since farm support was re-introduced during the last world war. These subsidies have given consumers the lowest possible prices whilst at the same time, as I say, maintaining a farming industry which is second to none in the world in terms of efficiency and productivity. So the obvious question isWHY, with all the many problems besetting this  Country, SCRAP A POLICY WHICH WORKS ?

 

HMG Answer 1. – A policy based on the area farmed gives too much of the farm budget to the largest holdings  -  My response - But this could easily be resolved by capping the amount payed to each holding, thus encouraging  more medium sized farms, more mixed farms, and more reasonably sized dairy units which actually put their cows out to grass in the traditional way.                                                  Also an area based policy is completely fraud proof.

HMG Answer 2  - The BPS is “EU based” – My response – BPS was “inherited” from the EU, but is no longer “controlled” or “funded” by the EU. A policy inherited from the EU in no way compromises our independence from the EU, or our sovereignty. Does future UK policy, right across the board, have to pass the test of being the antitheses  of EU policy? Very strange indeed!  

HMG Answer 3  -   We want to get rid of old-style, top-down rules and the arbitrary and inflexible enforcement of cross-compliance – My response – That is very welcome but this could just as easily be done without getting rid of BPS itself. This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

 

As for the measures which the Government intends to implement in place of BPS; in addition to reading as much as I can from Government websites etc, I have also spoken to consultants whose job it has been over recent years to navigate farmers through cross compliance.  They say that things are still vague and there are other “standards” to come, but they are able to say that even if farmers are able to qualify for all of the standards available to them in the Sustainable Farming Initiative etc - if they are able to jump through all of the hoops - they will be able to recover no more than 50% of their income lost through the scrapping of BPS. Now we are entering a new era of Government honesty, surely the headline should not be “Farming is Changing” but rather   -----  WE ARE GOING TO CUT AGRICULTURAL SUPPORT BY HALF”

 

But it could be more than a 50% cut.  BPS is but 80% of the total farm budget.   The other 20% has funded Countryside or Environmental Stewardship schemes. Now that future stewardship schemes are to be rolled into BPS’s replacement we  could be looking at a 50% cut in what was only 80% of the total budget. That is to say just 40 % of previous agricultural support.

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Could I now move on to the Secretary of State’s letter of 13 July, This is headed- “Sustainable Farming Incentive” whereby, in order to recoup up to 40% of the money no longer coming from BPS and stewardship schemes, farmers are invited to perform certain environmental tasks on their farms.                                                             -                 THE FARMERS’ ENVIRONMENTAL BOB-A-JOB SCHEME.   

But the full list of these bob-a-job tasks has yet to be announced. The new standards for hedges, nutrient management, and integrated pest management are “already” being worked on. So BPS is being cut whilst its replacement is still “being worked on”. And we are talking about the nation’s food supply!!

Surely it is reckless to cut BPS without having any idea whatsoever of how farmers will react to the new scheme, or how much UK food this will lead to.

 

 

 

However  work on the new soil standards seems to be more advanced.   ‘’We are ALLOWING farmers to decide what green cover crops work for them.”

If ALLOWING farmers to decide what green cover suits them best is a move away from old-style top-down rules” , it’s surely not a very big move.   

The other thing to comment on is that whilst BPS has enabled farmers themselves to invest in the future, without BPS farmers will have to APPLY directly for investment funding, under a “competitive scheme”.   In other words officials will have to “approve” of the investment before the funding will be available. Again this seems hardly a move away from “old-style top-down” direction. More like micro-management from Whitehall!!

 

As I say, the Government does not appear to have done a study of the effect which their new scheme will have on domestic food production. Switching support from food production to what is in effect an environmental stewardship scheme is bound to lead to a reduction; that is self-evident. BUT HOW LARGE A REDUCTION ? A seasoned agricultural journalist told GB News on 14th August that we could be down to producing only 35% of our own food.  As this new scheme was conceived long before the Ukraine crisis arose I would guess that the question of how this would affect domestic food production did not arise. Did we not hear stories, a couple of years ago, of a Downing Street official saying  that UK agriculture should be abandoned because it was such a small fraction of the UK economy ?? 

 

And then theres the Australia/UK Free Trade AgreementAfter initial, substantial duty-free quotas given to Aussie farmers, these quotas will be increased threefold for beef and sheep meat over the following ten years. And the quotas for cheese and butter will double. And then large quantities of cane sugar will be imported despite these crops having been treated with chemicals which are banned from use on our own sugar beet crops. The only farmers benefitting from this agreement will be Australian farmers. 

An article in the March edition of the Countryside magazine suggests that the carbon footprint of the beef we produce is 30 times lower than the beef produced in northern Australia following deforestation. And then again – it takes five times more ground area to grow a tonne of wheat in Australia compared with England. Five times the area to cultivate and produce a seedbed, pumping out all of those diesel emissions.                                          

And then again -all of the food required to replace the drop in our own production will have to be transported right across the globe, producing extra carbon emissions.                                                                                                          So what I am saying is that the Government’s new policy was conceived long before Ukraine brought everyone down to earth with a bump. It was conceived in a political environment  dominated by gung-ho globalisers, and green re-wilders. And its not just a war which could have a disastrous effect on the world market; a disastrous climate event  in a “breadbasket” area could have a similar effect.

Without BPS farmers will not automatically plant up their whole arable acreage; they will not plant fields which are likely to lose them money, and fallowing will become commonplace. This could possibly benefit wildlife but, as the author of the article in the Countryside magazine pointed out, Pillar Two Countryside Stewardship schemes have rapidly been reversing the damage caused by farming to wildlife habitat some 40 to 50  years ago.

 

I will let the author of the article speak for himself --- “Already there are worrying indications that small tenant farmers are at risk of being ejected from their homes, some after generations, by landowners looking to take advantage of government money in the short term to “wild” their large estates.  This would be a tragedy, as well as a mistake from an environmental point of view, and for our national food security”.  And this view was supported  by the agricultural journalist I’ve previously mentioned. He said that farmers with short term tenancies were being moved out so that large corporations, including airlines, could buy large estates in order to plant trees to offset their carbon emissions.  So food production has to be sacrificed in order that airliners can continue to pump out carbon emissions with impunity   

 

And finally to paraphrase slightly the words of your very knowledgeable, very expert, predecessor in the chair of the EFRA select committee – “The Government don’t know what they are doing; they may think their new scheme will not reduce food production, but that will be the effect! “            THE QUESTION IS - BY HOW MUCH ?  Has anyone in Defra bothered to work it out, or are we to sleepwalk into a catastrophe and have to pay through the nose for food from abroad, and in the process have to outbid poorer nations who will then have to go without.

 

In that way the new Government policy  could undoubtedly contribute to world starvation. And so it is not just self-interest which is involved; it has become a moral imperative for countries like ours to produce as much of their our food requirements as possible.

 

Is Defra realising this and planning to tweak their new policy a little to try to avoid facing the reality of our new world situation. They must not be allowed to do this; they must abandon their new policy altogether and restore the cuts already made to BPS. 

 

As I said at the start of this letter, could you please use it and the one of 8th June as written evidence for your committee to consider at your forthcoming inquiry.

 

Many thanks and best wishes to your committee members.

 

Yours sincerely

 

 

 

Malcolm Read