With just 32 days to go until the UK leaves the European Union, British farmers have learned that subsidies will be phased out from next year under the government’s new agricultural plan.
Under measures announced on Monday, from Jan. 1 support for farmers in England will start to move away from subsidies under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), part of the controversial Common Agricultural Policy.
Instead, the new “Path to Sustainable Farming” plan from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which aims to have farmers become self-sufficient by 2028, will incentivise them to deliver more on animal welfare and the environment.
It is the “most significant change to farming and land management in 50 years,” the government said.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has responded with skepticism.
President Minette Batters said in a statement that the rate at which BPS subsidies would be reduced “leaves English farmers with significant questions.”
“These payments have been a lifeline for many farmers, especially when prices or growing conditions have been volatile and will be very difficult to replace in the first four years,” she warned.
“Can Ministers be sure that new schemes will be available at scale to deliver redirected BPS payments?” she asked.
Batters cited livestock farmers among business owners who would likely suffer the most.
Due to the diminishing BPS subsidies, they might lose up to 80 percent of their income by 2024, she said, and called for clarity from the government on how new Environmental Land Management schemes would provide them with a genuine income.
The government, however, said the new system would be fair to farmers.
“Direct Payments will be reduced fairly, starting from the 2021 Basic Payment Scheme year, with the money released being used to fund new grants and schemes to boost farmers’ productivity and reward environmental improvements,” it said.
As part of the new plan, under a Sustainable Farming Incentive, farmers and land managers will be rewarded for taking a variety of environmental measures.
These include managing floods naturally, improving soil and hedgerows, managing pests and habitats, and creating or restoring woodland, wetland, and salt marshes, the government said.
‘Major Policy Change’
Batters said that without a full replacement scheme in place, it was very risky and a big ask to expect farmers to run high-cost farms, maintain food production, and deliver on the environment all at the same time.
Other risk factors for farmers, Batters said, were uncertainty around post-Brexit trading arrangements, the national CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus recovery, and the long-standing price wars at the retail end of the market.
She said it was, therefore, critically important to be clear on the economic impact of Defra’s major policy change.
“We would urge Defra to share this [economic] assessment as soon as possible,” she said.
“Indeed, this has been one of our key asks for the last four years.”
The government meanwhile said that the new arrangements, which reward environmental improvements, would also cut red tape, streamline regulation, and encourage technological innovation.
Environment Secretary George Eustice addressed both farmers and environmentalists at an Oxford Farming Conference event on Monday.
“Rather than the prescriptive, top-down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take,” he said.
“If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead.”