Former Conservative MP Matthew Parris asks, “Is ‘food security’ still an imperative for this 21st-century country long unable to home-source many of the other mainstays of our economic life? Why, post-CAP, should we despoil East Anglia and plunder Treasury coffers for fear of relying on Canadian wheat or West Indian sugar?
We all need to take a view on the texture of the rural Britain we want to sponsor, the size, type and location of the farms we want to support, the agriculture we want to see there.
Hill farming on sloping ground. in places rocky, often marshy and reedy, everywhere wet, exposed and windy, and with poor-quality soil whose agricultural use is only grazing. Nearly half of hill-farmers’ income comes from CAP subsidies. For them it’s the foundation of what still amounts to scraping by: they really are just about managing. Ministers guaranteed during the recent referendum campaign that this bedrock would not be disturbed until 2020. Beyond that there are no promises.
Governments cannot strike out in a new direction as suddenly as could an individual like me. Farmers and local businesses have invested whole lives in what they expect, and cannot take too much uncertainty about the future. Nor should the English countryside become just a forest, or a leisure park.
But sometimes there comes a chance to tweak policy gently but decisively in an altered direction, so that things begin to change, giving people time to change too. Could Brexit help us take back control of this at least?
Here are two questions to which I may not know the answer, but we should ask — at least because the compass must anyway be reset by 2020, and I think the Defra secretary, Andrea Leadsom, knows something needs to be done.
Her farming minister, George Eustice (another dedicated Leaver) has struck me as a man prepared to think outside, if not the box, the cowshed: he’s been talking sparkily recently about Britain’s chance to lead the way in land-stewardship and compassion towards farm animals; and on new approaches to underwriting this part of our economy.
Only a monster would deny there should be CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses; but chicken factories, cow prisons, industrial wastelands and giant system-built housing estates are on the march across our countryside.
Brexit is a chance for Britain to reshape its farming subsidies in ways that protect the land and use it more intelligently
There’s money here, and money talks, and ministers must stand up to it. Taking back control shouldn’t be from Brussels alone.
Edited extracts from the Times article (paywall)