The future prospects for farming support payments have divided opinion between agricultural campaigners in the ‘Brexit’ debate.
Farming Minister George Eustice, giving a speech this week, insisted that support payments currently delivered through the EU would remain in the case of a British exit, claims that were met with scepticism by former Agricultural Minister Sir Jim Paice who accused Leave campaigners of painting an “unbelievably rosy picture of life outside the European Union”.
Mr Eustice used a speech at the launch of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign’s Farmers for Britain initiative to set out four key themes for a new UK agriculture policy.
Any policy would have to offer greater investment in science and technology such as the development of new genetic breeding techniques, the Minister said, and a new regulatory regime based on evidence and science, “rather than the politics of the EU”.
To protect farming from the impacts of the weather and price volatility, a government-backed insurance scheme similar to the Canadian model, and futures markets like those in the US, were needed, he said.
Mr Eustice envisaged a new “farm area payment” to reward farmers who undertake basic measures to deliver environmentally sensitive farming, and a simplified version of the EU’s environmental stewardship scheme in which its remit would be broadened to include measures that improve animal welfare.
Mr Eustice said: “The EU doesn’t do bold change. You just can’t get things done.”
On support payments, the Minister said: “The UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support - or perhaps even more - as they get now. The Prime Minister has made that clear and I agree with him. After all, non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway actually give more support to their farmers than we do.
“In the scheme of things, the amount of money spent on our countryside and wildlife is very modest when compared with spending on other departments. But we could spend our money more effectively if we had control.”
Sir Jim, a key figure of the Farmers for In campaign, said he had “little doubt” that the support payments would continue to be paid but that they would not last long.
“I don’t believe that future governments will indefinitely continue to fund farming subsidies against a raft of other priorities such as the NHS, education and security,” he said. “Given that the last three governments have all called for the CAP to be cut or scrapped it is not credible to argue that subsidies will last forever.”
Another divisive issue in the debate is Britain’s ability to maintain a free trade agreement with the EU. Mr Eustice insists the EU needs a deal because Britain is a net importer of food, with EU imports worth £18bn last year.
Yet Sir Jim said any deal would take time to negotiate and Britain would still have to comply with EU regulations.
He said: “The idea that regulations are only because of the EU is absurd.”
UNION TO ‘PRESENT THE FACTS’
The National Farmers’ Union is holding a round of meetings at the start of next month for its farming members to join the Brexit debate.
Adam Bedford, who heads up the NFU office in Brussels and starts as the union’s new North East regional director in April, said the debate was dogged by uncertainty.
“We are determined to try and present farmers with factual information to help them make up their minds,” Mr Bedford said.
The first meetings will be held on Tuesday, April 5 at 12.30pm at The Bridge Hotel, Walshford, Wetherby and at 7.30pm at Bishop Burton College in Beverley.