NFU proposals for a new farm subsidy system only fit for cloud cuckoo land


It’s a special anniversary this year – 70 years since the 1947 Farming Act. I will return to this anniversary in more detail later in the year, but today I want to discuss one particular thing.  The 1947 Act was most unusual, possibly unique, because it enshrined in law an obligation on the part of Government to agree a very important and very expensive national policy, with an NGO.

Can you imagine this happening now?

That NGO, as some of you may have already guessed, was none other than the National Farmers Union, the NFU. The Act stipulated that the Ministry of Agriculture would sit down, every February, with representatives from the NFU, and conduct the Annual Farm Price Review. At this review, the price paid to farmers for commodities, such as beef, wheat or potatoes, was thrashed out. Behind closed doors. Not even the Treasury got a look in. Needless to say those at the Min of Ag (many of whom had taken part in the wartime programmes to produce food at any and all cost) were close friends of the NFU reps. I wonder if any minutes of the meetings survive at the National Records Office.

The purpose of this subsidy was to pay farmers the difference between what the market was offering for their produce, and the price that had been set between the Min of Ag and the farmers for that commodity, in that year. This was called Agricultural Price Support. It’s interesting to note that the subsidy was not intended to provide cheap food to the consumer, but to ensure Agricultural Production increased dramatically. Cheap food imports were still encouraged (via low tariffs) and farmers were compensated for their relatively higher production costs by the price support mechanism. These meetings and the cartel they represented continued for decades.

Here’s one story of a Cabinet level discussion on farm prices:





you can read more about this interesting piece of history in this article.

Fast forward to 2017. Surely, you might think, everything has changed now? In these straitened times, the NFU couldn’t possibly be thinking of reintroducing the notion of price support! Well you would be wrong.

It seems the NFU has been delving back through its long and distinguished history to come up with some new (ahem) proposals for what a farm subsidy system might look like post-Brexit. The policy document I have seen suggests that the NFU wants to propose a support system with an emphasis on “delivering for food, for the nation and for the public.” Note that it does not specifically say “supporting farmers”.

What appears to be the main element of this support system is a scheme of payments to “mitigate volatility”. This is jargon for price support, and there we are taken straight back to 1947. Prices for agricultural products do fluctuate in global markets, according to how much of each thing is produced, and what the demand for that thing is. Prices can also fluctuate wildly, because traders exploit weaknesses in the market system to speculate, in order to make quick profits. The NFU are also considering proposing “coupled” subsidies for market volatility – that is subsidies which are linked to how much of a particular agricultural product is produced by each farm. Coupled subsidies were mostly abandoned under the Common Agricultural Policy in 2005, because of their damaging impact on the environment and their tendency to encourage over production (remember the wine lakes and butter mountains?).

In another throw back to days of yore, the NFU is also proposing a system of capital grants to improve productivity. Another piece of ancient history – the 1947 Act introduced capital grants for farmers to increase their productivity by draining wetlands, ripping out ancient woods and hedgerows, and ploughing wildflower meadows and heathlands.

But I don’t want to suggest that the NFU has only returned to the golden days of the Annual Farm Price Review. There are some indications that the NFU recognise that the public expects them, as custodians of 3/4 of England’s land, to do other things. So they are proposing a “farmed environment scheme”. While this is touted as a replacement for the “greening” payments under the current CAP system, it’s really a return to the Entry Level Scheme (ELS). ELS was dreamt up by the NFU and their friends in Defra (and a few conservation NGOs) as away of channeling subsidies to farmers in such a way that it gave the impression that they were helping farmland wildlife and heritage features. The evidence from monitoring showed, as many of us said at the time, that at best ELS was merely putting a hold on further environmental damage, and in the main it did nothing for wildlife or other features.

Not surprisingly ELS was abandoned as an approach to Agri-Environment in the 2013 reforms, much to the annoyance of farmers who had been happy to take the £30 a hectare a year, for doing much as they had been doing before.

There is also a proposal for subsidy for the euphemistically titled “animal and plant health measures”. I think we can all guess what this means  – that part of a farm subsidy policy will pay to kill more badgers.

The most interesting proposal coming from the NFU is for a “selective scheme for environmental enhancement in designated areas.” This sounds promising, until you read on to discover that the NFU have cheerfully combined National Park AONB and SSSI all together in one lump of  “designated area.” As someone who has watched the Dorset AONB disappear under Maize for biogas over the past few years, while fighting to protect one particular area (Rampisham Down) which is an SSSI, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could be so ignorant as to lump the two together, as if they needed the same approach.

So, in a nutshell, there are the NFU’s proposals. No mention of public goods for public money, nothing about helping alleviate downstream flooding, no mention of Carbon, let alone Organic. When you add in comments from the NFU at last week’s farming conference that they were hoping for a 20 year transition period out of the CAP, and you can see that they are clearly living in NFU la la land.


For an alternative take on the future of farm subsidies, read the People Need Nature report “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for farming, food and nature.”



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Posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, NFU | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A Pebble in the Pond: People Need Nature report on opportunities for farming, food & nature after Brexit.








I’m delighted to be able to tell you about this new report which is published today. It’s the first People Need Nature policy report – A Pebble in the Pond: Opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit. You can download it here.

Here’s the summary:

As England prepares to leave the EU we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way we support England’s land managers.  This report shows how leaving the EU will enable us to channel money from the public purse to land managers in such a way that they can both produce food, help nature and provide all the other benefits society needs.

The last forty years of farm subsidies from Europe via the Common Agricultural Policy has contributed to a dramatic decline in nature on farmland – land that covers three quarters of England. The vote to leave the EU means we have to create a new system to support farmers to produce the food we all need.

This is an opportunity that cannot be ignored.  If England grasps this opportunity, the UK’s departure from the EU will yield benefits for nature and society that will be felt by generations to come.

  • The damaging subsidies that existed within the EU can be altered in order to protect and restore our countryside rather than damage it.  Nature, and the people of England will benefit from these changes.
  • Farmers are paid too little for the food they produce and in some cases are paid less than the cost of production. Supermarkets and others in the supply chain take most of the profit, leaving the farmers with the risks. This is an opportunity to tackle that injustice.
  • Subsidies currently paid to highly profitable farmers can be redirected to support small-scale sustainable farming, which benefits nature.
  • Landowners who provide benefits to society such as carbon storage or flood alleviation can be supported.
  • The UK’s unique Heritage Sites – from natural heritage, to historic buildings, to archaeological sites – can be protected for the future.
  • Far more action is needed to stop damage to nature from farming. Where an outright ban is not needed, a polluter pays principle can be widely adopted. Urgent action can be taken as a result of leaving the EU, to reduce the hazards of pesticides, to benefit nature, improve human health and produce healthier food.
  • Greater transparency in the way our countryside is managed and our lands are farmed can result from the UK leaving the EU, benefitting British farmers, society, our nature and environment.
  • A new relationship between people and food can be developed. Educating children about where food comes from and how it is produced, is the first step to understanding the true cost and value of food.

The report explores the relationship between farmland, food, people and nature; and identifies ways in which that relationship can be strengthened.

We need to have an open public debate about how the public supports farmers and landowners to provide food and help nature on farmland.

This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a much better support system.

Please to download and read it, and ask others to do the same.


Posted in Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Rampisham Down: We Won!


Rampisham Down radio mast © Miles King







Regular readers will recall the story of Rampisham Down and the plan to build a solar farm on a nationally important grassland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I have written about this case many times over the past few years, and you can read the back story in those blog posts; the story starts 3 years ago here.  Just search on Rampisham to find all the other ones. The story has plenty of plot twists, bizarre and slightly unbelievable characters, and some unsung heroes.

I’m delighted to say, after all this time, We Won!

Yes West Dorset District Council quietly slipped out the news before Christmas, that they have given planning permission to a smaller solar farm across the road from the proposed Rampisham Down SSSI site. As part of the permission, the developers, British Solar Renewables, have agreed to withdraw their plans for the SSSI, remove all the infrastructure they have illegally installed, and agreed a management plan with Natural England, to manage the grassland sympathetically. Wisely, the decision was delegated to the Senior Planning Officer. This avoided the Planning Committee getting involved again, after their epic bungling the first time round.

This is a great victory for conservation and something that we can celebrate at the end of this year which has been bad news on so many other fronts. All those people (over 10,000 in the end), who signed the Dorset Wildlife Trust petition to push for the original daft planning permission to be called in for a Public Inquiry, can feel that they made a difference to the outcome of this case. Most credit goes to Natural England for notifying the site in the first place (it would not have happened had it come up now) and for defending the site against immense pressure.

Happy New Year!



Posted in grasslands, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Blogging in 2016: a quick review

As it’s nearing the end of the calendar year, I thought I’d look back at the blogging that I’ve done this year and some of the highlights. I will leave it to you to tell me about the lowlights.

I have published 79 posts, including a number of guest blogs. In terms of numbers of visitors it’s been my best blogging year so far (and in various different forms I have been blogging for over six years now – this was my first post.) My numbers are teeny in comparison with other more well-known nature bloggers, but it’s been gratifying that I have had so many readers this year.

After receiving some comments which I decided not to publish, I discovered I needed to have a comments policy – I suppose this is an indication of the strength of feeling about things that have happened in 2016.

Far and away the most popular blog I wrote this year (and any year) was the day after the Referendum – The EU Referendum: Turkeys have voted for Christmas. I was amazed to see it read about 15000 times on that day and overall in the year it has been read 22,770 times.

In a distant, but still respectable second place with 4230 views is one from January – The Flood, The Environment Agency Chair and the Grouse Moor. In this post which followed the exceptional flooding of last Winter, I revealed that the chair of the EA was a Director in a company which owned a large Grouse Moor; owned by the now deceased Duke of Westminster. I thought it was odd that he hadn’t mentioned this fact, while discussing the causes of flooding and their relationship with upland management. Shortly after I wrote the piece the EA chair resigned. A friend in the sector suggested my blog had led to his resignation – it hadn’t, of course.

Not far behind in third place with 3944 views is another post-Brexit piece, which explored the then new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s views on farming and the environment.  It turned out that Leadsom had already made a number of statements, some quite bizarre, about farming subsidies in particular. Since then she has gone into complete reverse, avoiding making wackier comments, indeed avoiding making any comments about anything at all related to nature, other than that the Government will leave it in a better place than it found it. Nature means Nature, I guess.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) and his imaginative rendition of a story about voles was my fourth most popular blog of 2016 (with 2104 views). Cameron, appearing in front of a Parliamentary Committee, told a story about voles – the moral of which is, don’t bother with regulation, Nature will look after itself. When I looked into the facts of the matter, a very different story emerged.

Finally in this top five for 2016, is a guest blog by Peter Marren. Peter was inspired to write a piece about the Forestry Commission’s proposals to ban collecting of edible fungi in the New Forest. Thanks to his blog and other pressure, the FC have resiled from their threats.

I haven’t written much over the past four months or so. This is partly because I was ill for a long time, but also because I wanted to focus my energy on taking forward People Need Nature.

Thank you to everyone who has visited this blog during 2016, read my random jottings, and especially those who have left comments.

Posted in blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Sense and Nonsense on Biogas


Biogas Maize is now grown widely in the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty © Miles King

Maize grown specifically for Anaerobic Digesters to produce “biogas” is an increasingly common crop in England, especially in the South West. The area under Biogas Maize increased by 55% in 2016 compared to 2015, to 52000ha. The National Farmers Union set a target of 200,000ha of land under biogas Maize back in 2011, so they are 25% of the way to their target.

Maize is a very environmentally damaging crop, probably the most environmentally damaging crop grown in the UK. Why then is so much of it being grown? Because the Government pays not one, but two subsidies for it to be grown – the generous single payment (now over £200 per hectare annually) for anyone who owns farmland; and on top of this there are a range of payments including the Renewable Heat Incentive and the Renewables Obligation, depending on how big your Digester is, and when it was built. The really ridiculous thing is that producing gas from Maize produces practically no saving in Greenhouse Gas emissions compared with natural gas, because of all the emissions created in its production.

The Government, belatedly, decided to look again at whether all this money for environmental destruction in the name of climate action could really be justified – and held a consultation earlier this year. The results are finally out – and they have decided (at least on paper) to reduce the subsidy for biogas maize by 50%. Although they should have abandoned subsidy for this crop altogether, this is a step in the right direction. It will remain to be seen whether it has the desired effect in a years time when the 2017 planting area statistics are revealed. Given that this reduction only applies to new plants, it will do nothing to reduce the area already covered.

Richard Lowes, renewable energy researcher at Exeter University, points out that if the Government goes ahead with its preferred option, more than 50% of the gas generated from any new AD plant will need to be produced from waste, not crops. As there is a limited (and contracting) supply of organic waste, this should mean that far fewer new plants will be built.


Grass to Gas?

One energy company is proposing to use grass to run biogas plants, instead of Maize. Ecotricity, normally known for its wind turbines (and vegan Football Club) has plans to grow herbal leys (these are mixtures of grasses and other plants) as catch crops between arable crops like wheat or barley. These herbal leys will then be cut, twice or three times a year, and the mowings used to power the AD plants. This sounds great in theory – in practice though to produce enough gas to replace fossil fuel gas would take up all the agricultural land in the country (including upland grassland which is impossible to harvest). Mark Avery has already poured cold water on the idea, and Biofuelwatch recently produced a fairly comprehensive critique. Both actually overestimated how much gas Ecotricity would produce using their system, as herbal leys which don’t receive fertiliser (other than the digestate from the AD plants) will produce much less energy than a standard rye-grass silage crop (on which all the figures for grass to gas are based.) Benefits for wildlife are also likely to be minimal as the areas where the herbal leys are grown will be rotated around different farms. A few farmland birds might benefit.

The sad truth is that biogas from crops, alongside so many other approaches to bioenergy production, deliver very little apart from the opportunity to harvest large subsidies from the public purse, which as we know is rather empty at the moment. If we really wanted to do something about reducing carbon emissions, there are probably better ways of using the money – like a massive national housing insulation project.

After all, what’s the point of producing gas with a slightly lower carbon footprint, if it’s just going to be used to heat air which disappears out of draughty houses?

Posted in Anaerobic Digester, biogas, Maize | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

What now for Brexit?


It’s not quite 6 months since the momentous Brexit vote, but by the exact (demi)anniversary I will hopefully not be thinking about writing (possible), or thinking about Brexit (unlikely), and now seems as good a time as any to think about where we are.

First to recap – out of a total UK electorate of 46.2 million, 17.4M voted for “Brexit” – no caveats, nothing about the Single Market the Customs Union or the Free Trade Area, just Brexit – leaving the EU. No timetable, no deadline.

16.1M voted to Remain. 13M who could have voted did not, while another 5 million of voting age were not allowed to vote either because they were UK nationals not on the electoral register (800,000 disappeared when the electoral register was changed to individual registration), they were the 3 million UK resident EU nationals, or because they were some of the 5 million UK nationals living abroad who were disenfranchised. There is no agreed figure for how many UK nationals were disenfranchised – this report suggests 2.2 million.

Another 1.5 Million 16 and 17 year olds were not allowed to vote, even though they had been enfranchised in the Scottish Referendum – a good example of Scotland thinking more seriously about democracy than Engand.

Why all the figures? Because I read time and again that the The Majority of the British People Voted to Leave the EU (and yes it often is typed in capitals and bold). This falls into the category of “If you repeat a statement often enough it becomes true”, a bit like “we can take £350M a week back from the EU and use it to fund the NHS.”

17.4M of 46.2M is 37.6%, nowhere near a majority of the British electorate.

Taking the figures of the disenfranchised from the changes to the Electoral Register, the overseas UK citizens that were disenfranchised and the 16 and 17 year olds together, makes 4.5 Million people. Adding these into the total electorate (without considering whether they would vote Remain or not), means the 17.4M becomes just 34% – taking into account the 3M EU nationals, that figure becomes just 32%.

We know from the opinion polls that UKIP usually gets between 12 and 17% support, let’s say average of 15%  – so roughly half of the Brexit vote can be put down to UKIP supporters. I will make no bones about UKIP – since the demise of the National Front and the British National Party, UKIP is the home of the racist and the xenophobe, the “little englander” who still believes that Great Britain can become truly great again – and pines for the lost golden days of the British Empire.

I’m not suggesting that all kippers are racists and xenophobes but a lot of them are. So UKIP are the main source of the campaign about Immigration. Again, not everyone who is concerned about immigration is a racist or a xenophobe. There are a small number of communities where there is a legitimate concern about the impacts of immigration, but these are few and far between. Kippers like Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttalls and Arron Banks have used immigration to whip up anti-EU sentiment, very effectively.

On the economy, the Brexit vote and Brexiteers are split. On the one side there are the neoliberals/libertarian “Free Traders”. These people – people like Dan Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg, want to get rid of all the tiresome burden of regulation which they see the EU as having imposed on the UK. Rees-Moog went as far as to suggest that the UK should lower our environmental and health and safety standards to the level that India has.  Brexiteer John Longworth thinks that by removing standards we can get access to cheap food from round the world. If we don’t care whether that food was produced using slave labour, illegal pesticides or harbours human animal or plant diseases, let alone destroys nature, then he may be right. Their champions in Parliament are the disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Brexit Minister David Davis is also of this ilk as is Iain Duncan Smith. They want the UK to leave the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union. They believe that we can set sail on the good ship Free Trade, making deals with whoever we like – turning our back on our European partners and seeking the cheapest products the world can offer. This group believes in the necessity of freedom of movement – movement of capital and movement of people. They aren’t interested in immigration controls, indeed their economic model depends on a growing resource of cheap labour – zero hour contracts, no workers rights, the “gig economy.”

In another economic corner there is an altogether different gr0up of Brexiteers  – they want immigration control first and foremost, along with things like forcible integration into British (or rather English) society of immigrants, and to elevate something called “British values” (which are really English values), which is as yet undefined but undoubtedly includes Christianity and the promotion of predominantly white (male) culture. This group appears to be anti-neoliberal in that they claim to speak to the downtrodden, the left behind; and attack global corporatism. This group claims to be anti-elite.

In reality though people like Arron Banks, Lord Ashcroft and Nigel Farage are part of the very global elite and establishment they claim to despise. So there is some very clear political cross dressing going on here.

These Brexiteers are latent or blatant authoritarians  – they are cosying up to both President elect Trump and President Putin. They are often Islamophobic and see the need to challenge a perceived threat from Islam as possibly the single most important cause of the current times – authoritarians need a “hate” figure or group they can blame for society’s ills. They are also socially very conservative, often align with the alt-right in their hatred of social justice and identity politics – whether it be feminism, anti-racism, redistributive socialism or indeed environmentalism. This group are avowed climate change deniers, though they may not all agree with Trump that it’s a Chinese conspiracy.

There is another small Brexit corner – the leftists who believed that leaving the EU would mean the UK escaped from the very real problem of corporate regulatory capture of the EU (Lexiteers). This group correctly identified that the EU was vulnerable to corporate lobbying which worked against the interests of the European public, on a number of fronts. They believed (still believe?) that we will be able to improve the lot of the working person, that we will improve protection of workers rights, the environment, and social justice, outside the EU. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are both Lexiteers.

So I think I have shown that the Brexit camp is split into at least three groups – possibly more. And they have very different views on what  Brexit looks like.

Now consider how many people who voted Brexit would do so if the Referendum were held now, after 6 months of confusion, legal challenges, real and predicted shocks to the economy and the devaluation/inflation that has already happened.

Given all these conflicting and confusing positions from those seeking to influence her, it is no surprise that our new Prime Minister, who remember has no electoral mandate, nor is working from a manifesto, has no plan. Theresa May is hiding behind a disguise which is becoming thinner by the day. She may be holding her cards close to her chest, but the hidden cards say nothing except banalities like “we will have our cake and eat it.” Meanwhile the various elements of the EU are organising, marshalling their considerable forces. They have one goal – to punish the UK. We must be punished, to encourage the others.

The one thing the EU has to avoid is for other countries to follow suit and if the EU makes it abundantly clear that the UK will be significantly worse off outside the Union, that will focus the minds of the electorate in the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany, all of whom have elections in 2017. No wonder the EU wants us to trigger Article 50 asap, so the blood letting can be begin. We will be the Christians cast into the Arena with the Lions, so the European electorate, watching from the cheap seats, can consider whether to convert to Christianity.

So all this talk of transitional deals, and taking our time (five years, ten?) to leave the EU is nonsense, a distraction. The EU will laugh out of court anything that reduces the punishment that has to be inflicted, has to be endured. Unless, unless….

What if Article 50 did turn out to be reversible? A new court case brought in the Irish courts is asking the European Court of Justice to determine exactly that question. If it rules that Article 50 is reversible, this may give May the get out of jail free card she clearly desires. She could start the ball rolling, then – when it becomes clear just how badly the UK is going to suffer for our “freedom”, she could call a general election and ask the country whether it still wants to go ahead with our Martyrdom on the  twin crosses of “Free Trade” or “White British Values”.

If she does follow that route, she will be denounced by the extreme faction of the Brexit movement – what I call the Brextremists (which I would suggest speaks for only a fraction of those who actually voted Brexit.) The problems will really come from the element of Brextremists that lurk within her own party – the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox; the old guard of John Redwood and Peter Lilley; and the UKIP/Tory fringe of Stewart “suck it up” Jackson, Peter Bone, Phillip Davies and their ilk.

And so we will have turned full circle and be back to where we were before, when Cameron so foolishly committed to the EU Referendum, to try and cauterise the wound that has been festering within the Tory party for the last 25 years (and more.)

Still, with Labour in such total disarray, and likely to be staying that way for some time (until they realise the folly of the Corbyn experiment and get rid of him and his camp followers), she must feel confident that she can get a larger majority in a new Parliament Or at least the Tories will get a larger majority. She may have to fall on her sword to satisfy the Brextremists who will be incandescent with rage at her treachery.

Of course if the EU’s plan to punish the UK to keep the rest of Europe on side fails, and eurosceptic populists/authoritarians do take power in 2017, then there may well be no EU for us to decide to rejoin. If that happens, there will be an awful lot of people pointing to the UK and saying “This is where it all started. If it hadnt been for Brexit….”

And we can expect a quite different punishment altogether.







Posted in Brexit | 3 Comments

What is the public paying for? Guest post on farm subsidies from Tom Lancaster


Biogas Maize received a double subsidy © Miles King

I’m delighted to publish this guest post from Tom Lancaster, Senior Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB





The question is often asked of the Common Agricultural Policy – what is it exactly that the public is paying for? For a policy that continues to absorb 40% of the EU budget, it’s an enduring scandal that no one can provide a satisfactory answer to that question.


As we head toward the EU exit, what we pay for in future environment and farming policies will be the central question for all concerned. From our perspective, the focus should be on the environmental goods and services that farmers and land managers can provide to society. The fact that these are not rewarded through the market (unlike food for instance) provides a strong case for public intervention.


If you take this as read, the question again becomes, what should the public pay for? In this instance, I don’t mean what the balance should be between objectives, or the line between regulation and incentive, crucial though those questions are. Instead, here I want to focus on what is the basis upon which we make payments to farmers and land managers in return for environmental benefits?


This is where we descend into some uninhibited policy wonkery, but stick with it, because it matters.


[Spoiler alert: it’s possible and necessary to transition to a public goods policy where every payment relates to an action or outcome, and this is why.]


In traditional markets, prices are established by the interaction of supply and demand, but what are the options when dealing with environmental goods and services which markets cannot handle? From a public policy perspective, there are roughly three options that I can think of – the classic income-foregone and management costs model of agri-environment fame; attaching conditions to direct payments, as per the recent CAP greening measures; or an approach that attempts to replicate market forces and prices the benefits provided, a la payments for ecosystem services.


With the caveat that I know next to nothing about trade policy generally and World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules specifically, I think you can start from the assumption that the third of these is tricky when thinking about public policy. Private ‘buyers’ of these services can pay what they want – i.e. a nominal or ‘market’ value – but public buyers will presumably still have to abide by WTO rules if it involves agriculture (which it probably will given 75% of the UK is farmed).


This then leaves you with the first two, for which the WTO rules are set out in Annex II of the Agreement on Agriculture. From environmental, economic and political perspectives, they both have pros and cons.


Conceptually, a basis to payments of income-foregone and management costs makes sense. It’s economically efficient, easy enough to calculate at a relatively fine spatial scale and readily understood. Importantly, it also means that payments have a basis in specific actions, meaning that, roughly speaking, the more you do for the environment, the more you get. It does however also have its limitations.


As the Farmers’ Union of Wales pointed out, covered by one of Miles’ recent blogs, using this as your basis for payments can limit what you can pay. If you have a sector where 55% of income comes from subsidy, paying ‘enough’ through this route can become [politically] problematic. This is particularly an issue for uneconomic farming systems – if there is no income from agriculture, there is no income to forgo – and becomes an environmental issue when some of these systems are needed to secure the environmental benefits that only certain types of agriculture can secure, such as extensive cattle grazing.


The alternative then is to add strings to direct payments. This is the model the European Commission pursued with CAP greening by making 30% of direct payments conditional on complying with certain environmental measures. The temptation of this approach is that it means you can pay what you want, without being inhibited by WTO rules. There are some big ‘ifs’ attached to this though that sour things quite a bit.


First and foremost is the fact that with this approach, the payment has no connection to the action that it is conditional upon. Without this, farming union lobbyists are free to water down the level of ambition associated with these ‘strings’, without jeopardising the level of payment. This is exactly what happened with CAP greening – the budget was secured in February 2013, which gave the European Parliament and Council carte blanche to dilute what farmers had to do for the money, without any negative consequences, before political agreement on the CAP in the summer of 2013.


As CAP-guru Alan Matthews puts it, “Farm groups and status quo-minded member states and MEPs could work to weaken the ambition of the greening proposals without having to worry that this could lead to a further reduction in the CAP budget” (page 178). Matthews here was referring to the fact that budget was ring fenced and secured, but the fact that politicians could do this without worrying about implications for individual farmers was because farmers would get 30% of direct payments, irrespective of how ambitious what they did for the money was.


It’s also limited by the fact that direct payments cannot alter the factors of production, for good reasons given the environmental degradation that was driven by coupled payments. So if you want to support the extensive cattle grazing mentioned above specifically, as opposed to a generic land use that may be environmentally benign at best, or damaging at worst, you can’t use this payment basis to do it, because that would mean specifying a specific type of production.


So if you’re an NGO policy officer (like me), or perhaps more pressingly, a time poor civil servant, this leaves you in a bit of a pickle – how do you pay enough to secure the good things society wants and needs from land, in a way that ensures every pound spent secures a tangible outcome not secured by the market?


To demonstrate value for money and a link between outcomes and expenditure – surely vital if we are to make any sort of case to a Treasury not known for its largesse – then we need to start from a principle that all payments should secure a definite action or outcome. This then leads you toward an approach to payments based on income-foregone and management costs. WTO rules matter, but only up to a point – they are only relevant if another member challenges the payment, and given that the UK is unlikely to match the EU’s generosity to farmers, you could make a cogent argument that a challenge is unlikely.


Crucially within WTO rules, or at least the EU’s current interpretation of them, income-foregone is much more flexible than the FUW may have you believe. For example, as this work for the Land Use Policy Group suggests, you can do things like pay total costs of management, so that all of the costs associated with uneconomic but environmentally beneficial cattle grazing are covered (for instance). Critically, this then allows for payments significantly beyond those in conventional agri-environment schemes, whilst still retaining the link between payment and action or outcome that a policy focused on the provision of public goods will need.


It is issues such as this that need to be tackled as we develop post-Brexit environment and farming policies across the UK. This is just a snapshot into the options available, and the complexity that faces us over the coming years. It is also indicative of how relatively (very) dry policy questions and decisions will have a major impact.


We can’t pretend to have all answers yet, but we are working with others, including farmers, to build towards what we want to see in a future policy to ensure that it delivers for nature, farming and society. Being clear about what the public is paying for, why and how, will be central to this.

Posted in Brexit, farm subsidies, Farmers Union of Wales, WTO trade rules | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Farmers Union attacks public goods approach to post-Brexit farm policy


Farmland used to prevent downstream flooding

While there is still nothing new coming from the Government on what a post- Brexit farm policy will look like, The Farmers Unions are gearing up to have their say – and they will expect to have the lion’s share of the conversations with and influence over Government Departments at UK and devolved administrations.

The National Farmers Union, long known as a fully deniable department within the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, has not yet publicly announced its proposals for the new farming policy, though its President had “robust” discussions with Defra Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom on monday.  NFU are very worried indeed that English farmers will lose access to the Single Market under a Hard Brexit. If this happens tariffs will be introduced making our food more expensive for our EU neighbours to import. There would go some highly lucrative export markets.

Meanwhile in Wales on monday, the Farmers Union of Wales launched their Brexit Briefing Paper – except they haven’t actually made it available to the public (yet). I was looking forward to reading what they were proposing, but had to make do with a load of press releases instead. One thing did catch my eye.

The FUW claimed that World Trade Organisation rules prevent a Welsh or UK Government adopting a “farm payments for public goods” approach, to replace the awful Common Agricultural Policy.This is what they said:


Curious, I looked up the relevant wording in the WTO (annex 2 para 12). This is what it says:


That looks pretty clear to me – WTO rules, as you would expect, do allow payment for public goods – as long as those payments reflect additional costs, loss of income and have clearly defined benefits for the environment.

So if a farmer was paid to alter the way they farmed their land – to reduce downstream flooding for example; and this involved capital spend on eg blocking drains or creating new wetlands; and there was a quantifiable loss of income because there was less arable or pasture land to produce food, then WTO rules would allow those payments to be made.

Am I missing something, or is the FUW deliberately trying to portray a “public goods for public money” approach as breaching trade rules?

Posted in Brexit, farm subsidies, Farmers Union of Wales, NFU, public goods, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Good News for Beavers and Natural Flood Management.


Good news on nature and the environment is pretty thin on the ground these days – we obsess over how bad Brexit is going to be for nature, how Trump is going to destroy the planet and make us pay for it. But every now and again good things happen. When they do, it’s right we celebrate them and praise those who campaign and those who make the decisions.

Firstly Defra have committed £15 million to support natural flood management (NFM) projects. That Andrea Leadsom made this announcement responding to a question from former Nature minister Richard Benyon, is thanks to the campaigning skills and effort of Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth. Richard has been an enthusiastic advocate for natural flood management, so it seemed proper that he should be asking the question of the Government.

Others (notably George Monbiot) have also been making the argument that NFM needs to be a much larger part of the Environment Agency (and indeed everyone’s) work on flood prevention. That Defra made the commitment to do this is also thanks to the efforts of Alistair Driver, who has recently retired as National Biodiversity Manager. I first met Alistair in 1990 and I think it’s fair to say he has done as much as anyone for nature in the UK over the past 30 years. Alistair had put a very strong case for NFM to previous floods minister Rory Stewart, before he moved to International Development.

Natural Flood Management covers a wide range of different approaches – but the principles are that by working with nature, flooding can be avoided or minimised. This doesnt mean that there is no need for hard flood defences (or dare I say dredging) anywhere every again. But by slowing the flow of water from catchments, peak flood heights can be reduced, so fewer homes and businesses get flooded. NFM is often equated with tree planting, but this is only one of the many possible approaches. Keeping water in floodplains would seem like a sensible option, rather than encouraging it to flow off them as quickly as possible (which is what you do if you want to farm intensively in the floodplain).

FMP cover

Floodplain meadows (yes I am a fan and sit on the Floodplain Meadows Partnership steering group) provide flood storage in the winter and are amazing places for nature – as well as producing healthy meat and dairy from their wildflower-rich hay and pastures. There are only about 1500ha of this precious habitat left in England: why not have a programme to create or restore another 1000ha in strategic locations where flood storage to reduce downstream urban flooding? The beauty of floodplain meadows is that they continue to be farmed, while providing natural flood management.


The second bit of very good news came out of Scotland – that the Scottish Government has finally decided that Beavers are a native species and therefore should not only be allowed to stay in the places where they have become established, but should also be protected. This is obviously great news for Scotland’s Beavers (they will hopefully no longer be shot), but it is also very good news for England’s existing Beavers (on the River Otter in Devon) and future populations.

It seems unlikely that the UK Government will ignore the Scottish decision on the status of Beavers. After all, Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain – not from Scotland. If they are native in Scotland, they are native in England and Wales. While we continue to be subject to the EU Habitats Directive (on which Beavers are listed as a protected species) Beavers should now be protected by law in England and further re-introductions should be encouraged – or even required, to work towards achieving Favourable Conservation Status for this endangered animal.

There will be an inevitable outcry from the Anglers; as there was when Otters returned to Britains’ rivers. But Anglers and fish have survived the Otter’s return, as they will survive  – and benefit from – the Beaver’s return.

Beavers are the ultimate Natural Flood Engineer and some projects investigating how best to use Beaver reintroductions to mitigate flooding, should also form part of this new and very welcome future for Natural Flood Management.



Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

clean ponds and encouraging bees: Bayer influences public debate on future of farm subsidies

A public survey, paid for by mega Agrichemical industry business Bayer, has found that three quarters of the public supports farmers continuing to receive subsidies. So far the survey has received little publicity, just a couple of articles in the farming press.







On the face of it this survey would give succour to those arguing for “business as usual” for farm support after Brexit. But it’s always worth scratching beneath the surface of these articles to look at the data – and, more importantly, what questions were being asked and answered.

the first, main question asked of the Populus members (it was Populus who conducted the survey for Bayer: these surveys cost between £5,000 and £10,000)

To what extent do you think farmers are important or not important to the UK economy and way of life?

Note that the question has been carefully designed to conflate “economy” and “way of life”. This will inevitably change the answers given, compared with two questions asking separately about economy and way of life.

the headline figure is that 95% of respondents agreed that farmers were important to the “economy and way of life”.

There was however a very interesting divergence of views based on age of respondent. 37% (of a small sample) of 18-24 year olds only thought that farming was “quite important” while only half that proportion of 65+ year olds felt farming was only “quite important”. Conversely 80% of 65+ year olds felt farming was “very important” compared with 55% of 18-24 year olds.

Question 3 (we don’t know what happened to question 2, perhaps it didnt give the right answer) was

To what extent, do you think it is important or not important that the UK produces its own food

this is obviously a “food security” question, though again it does not ask how much of the food consumed in the UK,  should we produce. The Government suggests we are currently 76% self-sufficient in food – though I believe that figure rather unhelpfully includes exported food which is then netted off against imported food. This figure hides many important details too – although we are 85% self sufficient in meat and dairy, that figure drops to 23% for fruit and veg (excluding potatoes.)

Would anyone seriously suggest that it was not important for the UK to produce any of the food we consume? Amazingly (to me) 6 out of 2084 respondents believed it was not at all important. Leaving aside these individuals, a surprising 2% believed it was not very important that the UK produced any food of any kind at all.

More seriously, 75% agreed it was “very important” that the UK produced some food for its own consumption, while 22% agreed it was “fairly important”.  Again the age difference in views is really striking. For 18-24 year olds, only 55% felt it was “very important” that the UK produces its own food, compared to 84% of 65+ year olds.

The following questions were about GMOs. For some strange reason these weren’t mentioned in the farming press article., but I’ll mention them briefly here. the first GMO question was

Q.5 Populations worldwide are growing, while the available land to grow crops is reducing. One solution to ensure we have enough food is to reduce crops’ vulnerability to disease through genetically modified (GM) crops which have extra genes inserted into them. Based on what you know about genetically modified crops, which of the below best describes your views about the development of GM foods?

now that’s not a loaded question is it? Based on that remarkably biased question, 10% said they thought

“I think [GMOs] are the only way forward”.

I kid you not, that was the first option.

For those who failed to fall into the trap, 54% chose

“I agree with them in principle, provided there are no negative consequences related to health or the environment”

while 27% chose “I don’t agree with crops being genetically modified.”

I guess this wasn’t the answer Bayer was looking for, so they didnt publicise it. It was also interesting to see that there was a big gender split on GMOs. 21% of men but 33% of women don’t agree with GM crops, while 12% of men and only 7% of women though they were “the only way forward.”

Less than half of women polled agreed with GMOs in principle.

The next question (4) was also removed from the results, with question 5 asking about “gene editing”.

Bayer and other Agri-corps are trying to reframe the GMO debate by introducing the idea that “gene edited” crops are somehow not GMOs. They claim that gene editing only uses the crops own natural genes; and is therefore practically the same as traditional plant breeding. I did a biochemistry degree in ancient times and I can tell you this is bullshit. Gene editing could eventually enable crop scientists to change every single DNA base in a crop plant or livestock genome, including creating the same genes that current GMO technology crudely implanted into the genome. Gene Editing is just the next generation of crop tech. I’m not say it’s good or bad.

Anyway Bayer’s question was

Gene editing, where existing genes in the plant are optimised, is a new technology increasingly being used in human medicine to deal with diseases which otherwise are very difficult to deal with. It is also increasingly being used as a way of breeding new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests or drought, for example. Which of the following best describes your opinion on gene editing?

note how the PR experts at Bayer cleverly introduced human medicine into the question. If it’s being used in human medicine it must be a) safe and b) a thoroughly good idea, surely?

This time, respondents were not given the opportunity to agree that gene editing “was the only way forward”. overall only 51% agreed that

“If it is safe, then I am happy for gene editing to be used in crops”.

Safe for whom?

49% felt they either did not know or did not agree with gene editing.

Not surprisingly the same gender split revealed itself with this question. 29% of women were unhappy with the idea of gene editing, and only 44% were happy if it was safe.

Question 7 introduced the notion that farmers do stuff which helps nature. Unhelpfully the word ‘biodiversity’ was used. I have written copiously about the importance of language in communicating to different audiences about nature. When asked in one uk public survey, 80% of people thought it was a washing powder. Any here’s the question:

Q.7 Do you think farmers have a role to play in ensuring biodiversity (maintaining a variety of plant and animal life in the world) – e.g. building ponds, planting trees, planting rarer plants, protecting wildlife, encouraging bee population growth?

Here we have an insight into what Bayer think farmers do for nature, and what sort of picture Bayer wants to paint for the public, about farmers and nature. Leaving aside what on earth “ensuring biodiversity” means, in Bayer’s world (or the picture they paint) farmers help nature by

  • building ponds,
  • planting trees,
  • planting “rarer” plants,
  • protecting wildlife and
  • encouraging bees.

Note things like ponds, trees and planting “rarer” plants are not things that are done in crops. Protecting wildlife could mean anything at all.

Encouraging Bees is something Bayer are very keen on. Here’s a lovely expensive looking website to reassure you that Bayer loves Bees. Oh but Bayer also manufactures Neonicotinoids. Which kills bees and a wide range of other invertebrates.

Anyway what are these “rarer” plants, why are farmers planting them, and why are they more important than “rare” plants or “common” plants. Talk about confusing!

After all this confusion (which I am sure was accidental) imagine the public wondering what washing powder has to do with farming. Perhaps the ponds, once built, need a good clean so they can be better for nature.

Unsurprisingly there was a large “don’t know” vote for this one, up to 15% for 35-44 year olds and 14% in the south-west. Blokes thought they understood the question and there were only 8% don’t knows.

Those who thought they did understand the question voted overwhelmingly for the positive. 84% believed farmers have a role in “ensuring” biodiversity. And who can argue with that? All those ponds being built (and cleaned), trees and “rarer” plants being planted hither and thither; Bees being encouraged to buzz around: “come on bee – you can do it – lots of lovely pollen on this oilseed rape….. oh, you’ve died.”

And so to the culmination of all this questioning, obfuscation and confusion: Question 10.

UK farmers currently get payments (funded by UK taxpayers) back from the European Union for growing food and looking after the environment. Once we leave the European Union, do you think taxpayers should or should not continue to fund these activities?

Bear in mind a number of subliminal messages have already been inserted in the lead up to this question. Farmers are part of the British “way of life”, we need to produce more food to feed a hungry world, GM crops are good, we need to grow GM crops, we are now calling them gene edited crops (repeat after me), these are even safer, farmers look after nature by planting trees, building clean ponds and encouraging bees….

Also note that the question implies that the CAP funding for farmers is split equitably between support for growing food and looking after the environment. This is of course rubbish. In fact there no direct support for growing food, and hasn’t been since 2004. Farmers can receive the money and produce no food at all – look at the £4M paid to Grouse Moor Owners, who only have to do some “sheep management” to get the money. Or indeed the Saudi Prince who received £400,000 last year in CAP payments  for his Suffolk stud farm. Only about 20% of the CAP pot paid out in the UK goes directly towards projects that help the environment generally, and less than that is spent specifically on nature. Very little at all is spent on planting trees.

41% agreed that “Once we leave the European Union, taxpayers should continue to fund these activities – both growing food and looking after the environment are two things which are far too important to lose”

11% felt the focus should be primarily on the environment

21% felt the focus should be primarily on food production

9% felt the money should be spent elsewhere

16% didn’t know.

This was confusingly reported in Farmers Weekly as  “three quarters of the public believe farmers should continue to be subsidised by the taxpayer.”

Actually only 41% much less than half, felt that farmers should continued to be paid to grow food and look after the environment. Looking  a bit deeper, the figure was only 35% for 18-24 year olds, compared with 45% for 55-64 year olds.

Support from those who wanted a focus on support for the environment also varied greatly. 17% of 18-24 year olds wanted most spent on the environment, compared with 7% in the 65+ bracket; and 16% of those living in the Eastern region support this.

For those wanting more of an emphasis on food production, the largest proportion (29%) were over 65, while an equal number of 18-24 year olds wanted a focus on food as a focus on the environment.

Quite a significant number of people didn’t want subsidies of any kind to continue – 13% of 35-54 year olds. I guess they were thinking about things like the need to support education and health care. that figure dropped dramatically to 6% for the 55-64 year olds and 7% for over 65’s.

22% of 18-24 year olds did not know what they thought but only 12% of the over 65’s.

Apart from a reasonably clever bit of spin by Bayer (who are in the middle of a $66Bn take over of GM and Glyphosate manufacturers Monsanto), what else does this survey tell us?

I take heart from the thought that young people across society appear to care quite seriously about the relationship between nature and farming. And I think that the views of the over 65’s are heavily influenced by memories of the war, rationing and as I call it the “u-boats in the channel” approach to food security. Whereas there is no place for this imagery in modern day Britain, for a generation, this was reality, and we should not forget it.

Posted in agriculture, agrochemicals, bees, biodiversity, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments