Country ‘needs grown-up debate’ on farm subsidy as Brexit approaches

George Gittus at Symonds Farm near Bury St Edmunds.

George Gittus at Symonds Farm near Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

A leading Suffolk farmer has called for a “grown-up debate” on the future of farm subsidy after Brexit.

Robert Sheasby, NFU East Anglia

Robert Sheasby, NFU East Anglia - Credit: Submitted

George Gittus, the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) county delegate, said issues around farm support were complex, and included the prospect of cheap foreign imports flooding the UK market if UK farmers are not presented with a level playing field post-Brexit.

The pig and arable farmer, based at Great Saxham, near Bury St Edmunds, who farms around 2,000ha of arable land, suggested that a 20 year vision for farming, agreed by the political parties, would give UK farmers the stability they need in order to plan.

While certain farmers, such as hill farmers, depended heavily on subsidy in order to survive and their services were required to preserve historic landscapes, in his own case he would prefer to move away from subsidy, he said.

“You have got to have a mature debate - not an inflammatory one,” he said. “Personally I would like to be free of it provided I was free of all the rubbish that goes with it.

An EU flag flying in front of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster after the letter informing the

An EU flag flying in front of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster after the letter informing the European Council of Britain's intention to leave the European Union was handed over to EC president Donald Tusk in Brussels. - Credit: PA

“I’m not talking about Brussels red tape - I’m talking about how our ministries have interpreted the stuff. I would be, over a phased period of time, more than happy to be without it.”

As prime minister Theresa May triggered the Brexit process this week, East Anglian farmers’ leaders called for agriculture to be “front and centre” of negotiations, as the industry raised its concerns around trade, subsidy and access to foreign workers.

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“We need to ensure that farmers across the region have access to the best possible markets and the best possible opportunities to grow their business,” said NFU regional director Robert Sheasby.

“Any funding going through to agriculture in the future must deal with productivity, volatility and the environment.”

NFU president Meurig Raymond welcomed the UK government’s previous assurances that farmers will continue to be supported after 2020 once the UK is no longer subject to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but acknowledged that future subsidy might take a different form.

“We believe that farming should maintain current levels of public investment through this new policy framework, but recognise that in the future this may be delivered in different ways, directly or indirectly to farmers, for instance through fiscal incentives, environmental schemes or ensuring farmers benefit from cutting edge developments in research and development.”

But much depended on the deal the Government achieves, he said. “If the Government secures a free trading arrangement with the EU, ensures UK farmers are not disadvantaged by future trade deals outside the EU, and ensures the industry’s labour needs are met, then we can consider an ambitious new policy - one that is designed specifically for our domestic farming sector,” he said.

“If we get a bad deal for farming, then measures to manage volatility - such as direct payments - will remain vital to help farm businesses compete in an uncertain world.”

Mr Gittus said he personally was keen to explore the possibility of a transition mechanism such as bonds to help farmers become subsidy-free, where appropriate. This could take the form of a per hectare payment over 10 years which could either be collected on a yearly basis or as a one-off payment, he suggested.

The key issue was that UK farmers should not be disadvantaged compared to their foreign competitors he said, but one of the issues was that the price of food had been kept artificially low.

“Food is ridiculously cheap, regardless of what some people will say. The subsidy is intrinsic to that price gap,” he said. “As a farmer you know that your suppliers, both in terms of your machinery and your input suppliers, know you get your subsidy and the people who buy from you know it, so you are kind of being squeezed from both ends.”