7 February 2024

Brexit freedoms for farmers!

By Jordan Lee

Paris is under siege. All major roads entering the capital have been blocked and the perpetrators are threatening to starve the Élysée into submission and even a statue raised in tribute to a British industrialist was an innocent casualty of the protest. Similar protests over recent months have blocked major ports in Germany, wreaked havoc in Brussels, and ground the Netherlands to a halt. So, who are these protestors? 

Long gone are the sans-culottes. So too are the gilets jaunes. The new names brazened by the protestors are familiar ones: John Deere and Ferguson. 

Farmers across Europe have taken to the streets to protest a series of rigid targets to dramatically cut their emissions. This comes after two successive years of staggering rises in their overhead costs. The cost of fertiliser, for example, trebled between 2021 and 2022. 

Agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 71% of total nitrous oxide emissions and 49% of all methane emissions in the UK. To simply dismiss the need for sustainable reform, as an increasing number on the far-right in Europe have done, is deeply irresponsible. But rather than top-down targets and punitive taxes, we need to work with farmers – not against them – to improve the sustainability of their practices. 

The illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, once the breadbasket of Europe, has heightened our concerns about food security. Sustainable farming will not harm our food security; it is precisely for our future food security that we need to support the transition to more sustainable agricultural practices. The greatest medium- and long-term threats to food security are biodiversity loss and climate change. 

In fact, more regenerative farming techniques can help improve farmers’ resilience to global price shocks and freak weather events, whilst cutting overall running costs. However, in order to make this transition, farmers must first bear the cost of doing so, which is where they do deserve support. 

Unlike the EU, which is constrained by the rigid requirements of the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK is uniquely positioned to support farmers on the road to net zero and avoid similar disruption. 

Brexit has presented us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a bespoke farm support system tailored to our own national circumstances and priorities, that fairly rewards farmers, encourages innovation, and restores our natural world. The government’s Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) mark a significant step in this direction. In this general election year, now is the time to grasp this opportunity, secure the future of farming and give the conservatives an electoral leg-up with rural communities. 

Europe’s protests show the importance of working with farmers, not against them. ELMs is designed to do exactly this by providing a financial incentive for farmers to improve the natural environment. But we can, and must, go further. 

To start, the government needs to correct the injustice of farmers being undercut at the farm gate when trying to sell their produce. Research from Sustain found average profits on a range of staple fresh foods was paltry, often less than one percent of the total profit across the food supply chain. If we are to secure the future of farming and our food security, we must right this wrong. 

A free market relies on the principles of profit and competition. We are in danger of failing on both these measures. Farmers’ profits are often negligible. When selling their produce, farmers are also beholden to a small handful of food processors and supermarkets who agree contracts on flexible terms to suit their own business needs. The landmark Agriculture Act passed in 2020 recognised these problems and contained powers to improve both the fairness of contracts between farmers, food processors, and supermarkets. Now is not the time to shy away from using them.

Planning red tape also prevents farmers from going green, improving their productivity, and turning a profit. Jeremy Clarkson’s ongoing fight to do something as simple as building a farm shop captured the imagination of many and highlighted the daily struggles of many farmers. It is time the government grasped the nettle and committed to reforming the planning system to ease the burden on farmers. This could be transformational for their bottom line and our natural environment. 

Farmers are the original custodians of the natural environment. Conservatives have always understood this. We must not forget it. 

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Jordan Lee is Nature Programme Manager at Conservative Environment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.