National Trust calls for complete reform of British farm subsidies
The National Trust has called for complete reform of the British farm subsidy system after Brexit, by ending payments for owning land and only rewarding farmers who improve the environment and help wildlife.
“The subsidy system is broken. It is not working. Farmers are going out of business. The state of wildlife is in steep decline and large parts of that is because of intensive agriculture. The vote to leave the EU allows us to think radically about the future of the entire system,” the trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh, told the Guardian ahead of a speech at Blenheim Palace on Thursday.
“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but which are valued and needed by the public. The current system rewards people for the hectares they own, with very inadequate standards for wildlife and the environment,” she said.
“In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends. The first is utterly dependent on the second.”
The proposals by the trust, which calls itself “Britain’s largest farmer” and is one of the biggest recipients of European common agriculture policy (CAP) payments, would see the basic income support system of subsidies scrapped and farmers being paid out of public funds only for environmental services such as flood prevention, wildlife and nature protection.
“It is essential to act now as 60% of species have declined in the UK over the last 50 years. Habitats, breeding grounds and food sources have been lost, soils have become depleted and natural fertility impoverished,” Ghosh will tell a BBC Countryfile conference.
“This has happened in large part due to the industrialised farming methods incentivised by successive funding regimes since the second world war. So it is not the fault of farmers but the fault of the system which is flawed and expensive,” she will say.
The biggest farms currently receive the biggest cheques but they often do the most harm to the environment. A new system could swing subsidies towards small farmers, benefiting those who protect soils and rivers, she said.
“Unless we make different choices, we will leave an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited,” she said.
The EU pays British farmers up to £3bn a year, of which around 20%, or £600m, is paid to farmers to protect the environment. The trust, which owns 618,000 acres of land and has about 2,000 tenants and 4 million members, received £3m in direct subsidy from CAP last year and £8m for environmental stewardship schemes. All the money was spent on conservation, it said.
Ghosh said she did not expect the price of food to automatically increase with the elimination of subsidies for land ownership. “The price of food is already affected by the global market. Only about 8p of the price of a loaf of bread is the cost of the wheat that it is made from. The link between the subsidy system and the price of food is not absolute.”
She said that many upland National Trust farmers already managed their land for the benefit of nature and landscape rather than for food production. Renewable energy, flood protection services and eco-tourism could pay more than subsidies.
Ghosh enviaged a phase-out period during which farmers would continue to receive payments for land ownership. “It cannot be done overnight. It is not clear yet when the current subsidy system will phase out. But all interested parties are asking for it to remain until 2025,” she said.
“We may need some kind of transition period to get there but that means payments for goods that go beyond food production – for the wildflowers, bees and butterflies that we love, for the farmland birds, now threatened, for the water meadows and meandering rivers that will help prevent the flooding of our towns, and for the rebuilding of the fertility and health of the soils on which both nature and production depend.”
Ghosh laid out six principles of farming and conservation which she said should apply in the new, post-Brexit system:
1. Public money must only pay for public goods. There will need to be a transition to the new world but this basic income support payment should be removed.
2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it. In the future, 100% of any public payment should be conditional on meeting higher standards of wildlife, soil and water stewardship.
3. Nature should be abundant everywhere. The new system needs to support nature in the lowlands as well as the uplands.
4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature. Nature needs joined up habitats on a landscape scale with subsidies implemented on a farm-by-farm basis.
5. Farmers that deliver the most public benefit should get the most. In the future, those farmers and land managers who get the most public money should be those who deliver the best environmental outcomes.
6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature. Public money should help create ways of farming that benefit nature and help develop new markets to reward farmer for storing carbon, preventing floods and promoting biodiversity.
The National Farmers Union, with around 47,000 farmers, is consulting all its members before proposing a future domestic agriculture policy. It declined to comment on the National Trust’s proposals.