DEFRA Consultation Meeting April 10th 2018

This may be a little late, but sunny weather among other things have put this write-up on the back burner: seriously DEFRA, a consultation with farmers which takes place over spring?!? For those who haven’t heard of it yet, DEFRA has been consulting with myriad interested groups as well as individuals over what should happen post-Brexit: it published the Health & Harmony paper at the end of February, and has invited feedback on its ideas by 8th May.

As part of the consultation process, DEFRA has also been taking part in events and workshops around the country, and mostly on behalf of the OGA I was invited to an event run by Sustain and DEFRA at the Mary Ward House London on Tuesday the 10th April 2018. The aim was to “discuss some of the key Government proposals for building a thriving agricultural sector outside of the EU”.

Vicki Hird from Sustain kicked us off in the morning by welcoming everyone (it was a good turnout, approx 70+ people from all kinds of organisations) and pointing out how many organisations Sustain represents, as the voice for food and farming. She also welcomed the opportunity for discussion and chance to be really bold with a new food and farming system, concentrating on sustainability in all its guises, and celebrated the paper’s concentration on public goods and the environment. She also pointed out how linked health was with all the points covered in the paper, although it is not always explicity referred to in the document itself (despite being in the title). She also warmly thanked Michael Gove for taking the time to come to the meeting.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affair, then gave an unscripted speech in which he encouraged as many people as possible to get involved with the consultation: he explained that in the case of banning the tusk/ivory trade, that came about because of the engagement and passion exhibited by so many participants, which made it easier for DEFRA to engage other government departments, to connect the threads and get something momentous done. He urged us all to “take this opportunity to make it clear what you want,” and (somewhat ironically given his infamous Brexit quote about experts) explained that “expertise and authority counts” but that all views were welcome. He also covered and seemed to support all the ‘right’ things in terms of sustainability, reducing reliance on inputs and chemicals, looking holistically at health and food choices, supporting high quality food production… but as a speech rather than bill and as it’s just a consultation paper nothing is concrete yet…

Finally DEFRA’s deputy director for the RDPE Andrew Robinson gave an overview of the Health & Harmony paper, DEFRA’s current thinking about the issues and explained how the following sessions would work. His presentation emphasised the top priorities: broad purpose, integrated policy, adequate budget for the job, baseline regulation and public engagement. Following March 2019 when the UK formally leaves the EU, there will be an implementation period, expected to last around two years, then “at some point” (!) the new agriculture policy begins and CAP is ended.

After the introductory speeches the participants headed to a breakout session to discuss one of the following areas, with time for another session in the afternoon:

1.     Reducing Direct Payments To discuss the best approach for reducing direct payments to farmers: considering progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments.
2.     Environmental Land Management scheme To discuss what a new environmental land management scheme should look like and how to make it a success. Including multi-annual agreements, user-friendly focus, innovative mechanisms, capital grants & funding for collaborative projects.
3.     Farming Excellence, Profitability and Resilience To discuss how to ensure farmers have access the right tools to improve productivity and manage risk and volatility; covering skills & knowledge; investing in new technologies with a focus on resource efficiency & sustainable growth; skilled workforce – investing in talent & an attractive & exciting career path; and agri-tech research
4.     Animal Health/ welfare This workshop aims to explore the ways we can encourage farmers and land managers as animal keepers throughout the industry to further improve animal health and tackle endemic disease.
5.     Uplands/Rural To discuss how the Government can support the uplands and other remote areas to improve growth and prosperity across rural communities

I chose to go the Farming Excellence session first: DEFRA officials were facillitating the discussions, but many partipants seemed to have very similar views and addressed their points to the DEFRA employees passionately as if to convince them there and then of the need to overhaul the system and get departments working together – for example the planning department to make ot easier for landworkers to build on their land, in order to encourage and maintain new entrants, as well as help with family farms and attracting workers. There were plenty of interesting discussions about problems with the supply chain and how the competition commission and supermarket ombudsman should also have more powers; and how tinkering with plans such as trying to get farmers to share resources and skills isn’t really addressing fundamental problems with the food system.

After an interesting networking lunch, I took part in the reducing cap payments session, and again it was felt by most in the room that these kinds of questions aren’t really the right ones we should be asking. Small scale growers were well represented in the room, and we all pointed out that horticulture is often not even included in stat gathering or discussions at DEFRA about agriculture and food production; and that holdings under 5ha are currently ineligible for cap payments anyway. It was revealed by the DEFRA facilitators that there isn’t any modelling looking at the affects of progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments – this lack of modelling was a bit of a shock (a David Davis Brexit moment). It was felt that DEFRA should be looking at how models of the ideas posited would affect recipients, especially those marginal farms who are currently so dependent on cap payment and quick withdrawal with no other support or alternative system already in place could lead to the farms going out of business as well as bankruptcy, depression and suicide of farmers. Without the modelling information, it was felt to be difficult to arbitrarily pick an type of withdrawal curve profile, other than gradual withdrawal would probably be more sensible. Although it was also pointed out that with a limited budget, it might be difficult to put the new system in place before a reduction on cap payments has freed up some money to spend on it (although again, modelling and projection should be able to ameliorate this as in a finacial year, if you know you will be saving £xx, you can plan to spend £xx on another system).

Overall many participants were left with the desperate urge to fill in the online consultation asap and encourage everyone they knew to do the same, in case these very important issues raised are overlooked or drop down the priority list.