Farming & Politics Don’t Mix

BY JIM WEBSTER

As you can imagine, a slaughterhouse will get an awful lot of paperwork, and a lot of it has to be properly disposed of because it’s government documents. So a manager I know installed a shredding machine to dispose of it securely. Last time I talked to him he saved this paper for bedding up the pen in the lairage that they put the old bulls in. As he said, bullshit to bullshit.

One of the problems of farming in Europe is that the inhabitants, the consumers, our customers, set high standards. It isn’t merely that they want decent food, they want it cheap, and on top of that they want it to be produced with high animal welfare and environmental standards. The latest thinking seems to be that we farmers will cut our CO2 production so that they can continue to fly abroad on holiday.

Within the EU (and the western non-EU countries) there was a political acceptance that there was no way to square that particular circle other than by the state covering the costs that farmers couldn’t recoup from the market.

Now the world market price for some crops is set by the use of GM varieties. They can undercut EU produced crops produced to different (and more expensive) standards. Even if you don’t accept these standards as higher. It’s the same with beef (and not using hormone growth promoters) or milk (unable to use bovine somatotropin.) Whether European farmers should or should not use these products is a different argument. I start from where we are.

Then there’s the weird randomness of regulation that suddenly hits farmers. For example the EU suddenly introduced the Three Crops Rule. It required farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to grow at least three different crops on that land. Even if they didn’t want to. Even if they hadn’t got suitable machinery, storage or a market.

The reason this came about was probably because of the Germans. The EU encouraged biodigesters to produce energy. The idea was that they would turn pig slurry or whatever into clean, green energy. The problem was that you cannot efficiently run a biodigester on pig slurry alone. But add some maize silage and it works well. From what I’ve been told the more maize silage the better. As always with political decisions, the law of unintended consequences is the only law that is ever binding. To quote,

“A combination of bioenergy, especially biogas, with livestock activities, have together been a strong engine for the “maizification” of the German countryside. In northern parts of Lower Saxony, e.g., the district Rotenburg (Wümme), there are more than 150 large biogas plants and maize is grown on 63% of the total arable land. In some areas, this rises to 75%, and places even greater pressure on biodiversity.

“The conversion of the cultural landscape to maize has displaced many grassland birds. In this way, Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Eurasian Curlew, and other species have no future. Nests are being destroyed and feeding grounds have become worthless. For species like the Barn Owl and Red Kite, life has become even more difficult as giant grasses and maize remove the clear views from fields where they normally hunt for prey. When food is scarce, breeding success declines or even worse, no chicks survive.”

So the EU realised they had to stop this. But being politicians and bureaucrats the last thing they were going to do was go to the Germans and say, “Come on chaps, let’s stop taking the mickey here.” After all to do that would have been to admit a policy failing. Heaven forfend! So they brought in the three-crop rule so farmers in, for example, the UK, Greece and Spain who hadn’t been taking the mickey, were hit by a whole new raft of regulations. In a nutshell, that’s one of the reasons why agriculture in Europe needs support.

Now we’re leaving the EU, and the UK government has seen this as an opportunity to put in a better agricultural support system, one tied to delivering environmental benefits. Obviously, there are arguments to be had over this, but nobody seems to have started from the stance that after decades of trying, the EU system had reached such a high level of perfection that it would be foolish to abandon it.

The government put forward a timetable. Under this, the current support, BPS (Basic Payment System) would be tapered off and the new system, ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) would be brought in to take up the strain. The idea behind ELMS, to make sure that the money goes to provide clean air, clean water and all sorts of other environmental benefits, is basically a good one. Creating a scheme from scratch to do it is complicated. The scheme designers couldn’t just tweak an existing scheme as no existing scheme attempted to do this.

But thanks to the monkeying about by MPs, everything got delayed. Given that we had two years where, effectively government couldn’t govern and nobody knew whether we were leaving or not, Defra was trying to plan the future with its hands tied. It was going to be the loser whatever happened. If we left and the system wasn’t ready, it would be Defra’s fault. But if we didn’t leave and Defra had spent £150million getting a new system ready to go, only to have all the work abandoned because we’d be sticking with the EU system, Defra staff would be slammed for wasting money.

Now the dates for tapering BPS have been set in political stone, but because of the political nonsense we’ve had to put up with, the ELMS system has slipped. So we’re no longer talking about a smooth transition from one to another. There’s going to be a gap of some years where there’s going to be no meaningful income coming in from either scheme. Now we cannot just expect the market to fill the gap. I mentioned about the way farm gate prices have fallen here and in the world of Covid, with a lot of consumers having a lot less money to go round, I foresee consumer resistance to higher prices. I can understand that.

To be fair to Defra, they could see the problem. So they set about trying to tackle it. The obvious thing to do would just be to delay the taper. Things would happen two years later and that would sort the job. It would take no more staff, indeed if you handled it properly you could quietly withdraw staff from this scheme to start working in the ELMS scheme.

But no, Defra has suggested a whole new scheme, the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). This scheme will ‘bring forward’ some things from the ELMS scheme into the years 2022-2024 but will be retired as ELMS takes over. Now to be fair to Defra they’ve got a lot of people working on ELMS. There’s a lot of things they’re trying to get right, like the inspection regime. The EU didn’t seem particularly bothered if it inflicted overly cumbersome and expensive inspection regimes on member states. But Defra feels that this is a chance to do something better. So obviously the people working on ELMS have to stay working on ELMS. Because if they don’t, ELMS will be even later. Similarly Defra cannot withdraw staff from BPS because they’ll still be busy. So they’re going to have to find people from somewhere to create a scheme from scratch and get it running in a very short period of time only to shut it down again.

Surely it has to be easier and cheaper for everybody just to slow the taper on BPS. But apparently it’s set in stone because somebody’s staked their political credibility on it.