Fear Not, Farmers

BY BEN EVERITT

Don’t believe the doom-mongers. Our farmers and our environment can thrive after Brexit.

Have a beer with a farmer. Like everyone else, farmers have got concerns about a no-deal Brexit. But after a pint or two you’ll learn just how much the EU has screwed agricultural economics. A clean break can’t come soon enough. The system is now so complex that the multiple agencies charged with sending these payments to farmers can’t keep up. Farmers are often left with only a small proportion of what they are due.

The reforms starting coming though from our own Government in the UK are a real step in the right direction. Although farmers hate the junkie-like relationship with subsidies, it does make sense to keep-but-refocus an element of subsidy. And in all honesty, we’ll have to. Minsters have already committed to maintaining the same level of subsidy until 2022.

But it’s what we subsidise that matters most. In the UK we prize our biodiversity. The hedges, copses and spinneys that make England look, well, like England. The moors of Scotland and the rugged valleys of Wales and so on. But these aren’t productive bits of land. In France they rip them out and cultivate them. Not the valleys, they ski down those. In fact, if you’re driving down to those productive, snowy, valleys in France, you’ll note a distinct lack of hedges along the way. That’s what our growers are competing with – thousand-acre mega-fields run by huge subsidy-hovering agribusiness. They’re super-efficient, but at a shameful cost to the local ecosystem. No one wants that for here, we value nature too highly. So we need to recalibrate the way that subsidies are applied to protect our environment and our farmers. And we can’t do that in the EU.

We owe it to British farmers, the backbone of our nation, to leave by the end of October and get on with sorting this situation out. Nobody is saying that a no-deal situation will be easy for our agricultural sector, it’s clearly going to be bumpy, complex and fraught.

But I’m optimistic about our future. Even before Grantham’s Richard Hornsby & Sons sold off their unwanted design for caterpillar tracks to what would later become the Caterpillar company in the US, the UK has been at the forefront of technological breakthroughs in agriculture.

Last month the government announced a further £22 million of investment in agri-tech through the modern Industrial Strategy. Lincolnshire’s Tuberscan are developing ground penetrating radar, underground scans and AI to monitor potato crops and identify when they are ready to harvest. This technology could increase the usable crop by an estimated 5%-10% and reduce food waste with minimal extra cost. aiScope, based in Yorkshire, are applying AI to the scourge of blackgrass, which currently costs farmers £580 million a year.

AI-driven mapping to optimise yield and minimise chemical use will make British agriculture more efficient and even more environmentally sensitive. With technology and a clean break from a broken system, we can go back to a world where farmers made a living from looking after the land, husbanding our environment and putting food on our tables.

To borrow a phrase from a few years ago, this is about taking back control. It’s about our nation’s food security and recognising that looking after our countryside is something that we should be paying for, because it’s something we value. Our nation’s environmental future is very nearly in our own hands.

Ben Everitt represents Great Brickhill and Newton Longville ward on Aylesbury Vale District Council. He works in London and Milton Keynes doing “strategy stuff” in the finance sector. Ben’s Twitter handle is @Ben_Everitt

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