Could the pandemic end the the rural brain drain? Credit: Getty

December 4, 2020   7 mins

This article was originally published in December 2020. 

I think George Eustice, the PR man turned Secretary of State for the Environment, was still telling homely stories about his Cornish farming grandfather when my mobile phone starting ringing. I was moving my flock of sheep down a lane with my sheepdogs and had planned to catch up with the news when I got back to the farmhouse. I looked at the missed calls then stuffed the phone back in my pocket.

Lots of people, including journalists and friends, were calling to ask what I made of the new agricultural policies announced by Mr Eustice. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: I wrote a book called English Pastoral about how farming and nature in this country got into this mess, so people expect me to have some kind of intelligent opinion on what is happening and whether it is good or bad. And so, having read the documents and listened to Mr Eustice, here is mine.

Our agricultural policies are going to change — hugely — from what they have been under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). And since the tragic decline of biodiversity on British farmland happened under that policy, this is overall a welcome development.

A massive shift is needed to take us from the post-WW2 cheaper-food-at-all-costs production model to something more sustainable. We now know that those policies had loads of negative effects, like the disappearance of farmland birds or wildflower meadows. We asked (and paid) British farmers to make their land factory-floor efficient; they did, and the results aren’t pretty — nature in Britain is on its knees.

You might ask why governments need to interfere in farming and land management at all, but you’d be about two thousand years too late. States have always manipulated farming to regulate food supplies, cheapen food for the poor, make food safe, avoid famines and food shortages, and encourage domestic production for times of war and national crisis. The Bible is full of pharaohs storing grain, or passing decrees about food to achieve one thing or another.

This meddling went into overdrive in the 20th century, during and after wartime, when it became apparent that our freedom depended on being able to grow enough of our own food on our own land. As a result, farm economics are deeply weird — and quite unlike any other sector or industry.

The price you pay for food in the store, and the price the farmer receives, do not reflect the real cost of producing that food — not even close. According to government statistics, 58% of a British farmer’s income is from subsidies (remarkably, that figure only drops to 46% for “very large” farms.) It doesn’t matter what kind of farmer you are, upland or lowland, arable or livestock, intensive or extensive, nature-friendly or monoculture: you can’t earn enough from commodity food prices, so your business is propped up by these payments.

It is bonkers, but it’s a global problem, because the commodity prices are set globally and farmers globally tend to be subsidised. The US has a particularly insane system that encourages terrible industrial farming and then dumps its excess stuff on world markets at beneath true cost.

So, it’s clearly time to reform farming subsidies — and that’s what Mr Eustice was suggesting. The new system is called “Environmental Land Management,” or ELM, and it is going to pay for things much more clearly in the public interest, like helping the British landscape to recover, and making farming more sutainable.


Good idea.

I am obsessed with making my farm more nature-friendly; we have planted 15,000 trees in the past five years, and plan to get another 10,000 in soon. We have re-wiggled the river, created 15 new ponds, restored old wildflower meadows and taken part in a project to restore a peat bog on our fell.

This policy shift might just pay me more to do good things that make the world a better place — and I’d be grateful for the help. But as I read the documents behind the enthusiastic and progressive speeches I, and lots of other farmers, got a shock — not by what was in it, but by what was absent.

There is no real vision of progressive agriculture behind these changes, no talk of rebuilding the lost local food infrastructure and shifting our culinary culture away from corporate-made processed foods and unhealthy junk. There is no suggestion of the radical changes needed to rein in the power of supermarkets and other big corporations that drive down prices, and through that encourage destructive farming.

There is no mention of “food security”, or the very real risk that outsourcing our food supply places on pristine, natural and unprotected environments like the Amazon. There is little or nothing said about raising standards (an anathema to US trade negotiators) or shifting farming to be more “regenerative”.

And the details are hazy as hell.

How ELM will work and what it will pay for haven’t been worked out yet. Of course, it may develop in the next few months into a really brilliant and enlightened scheme that does great things for both agriculture and nature. But they better get a bloody move on, because it is four years since the referendum, and just a few weeks until we may crash out of the EU transition period without a deal — and ELM doesn’t replace the CAP.

The current plan is for a seven-year transition period, in which we carry on with the old systems and payments, but year-by-year phase them out and replace them with the new system. A new system which hasn’t been worked out yet.

It is not a prospect relished by farmers. As one of my peers put it, “it is like shifting from a salary to a per hour contract, with your salary halved by the fourth year, and the hourly rate not revealed”. It looks like a great many of us will lose financial support, without being able to get onto the new schemes that would allow us to fill that hole with payments for anything more progressive. Details matter, and they are in short supply.

The problem for me as a farmer is that despite being blessed with wonderful TV adverts telling me to plan for a “no deal Brexit,” I haven’t a clue what to plan for. I don’t know what to produce, or what I will be paid for. My options at 1,100ft above sea level on a pasture-based rocky farm are limited. I also know that the main market for what we produce is the EU — worth £14.5 billion — and if we leave without an agreement then British farm products will go from zero tariffs to a 62% on lamb, 85% on beef, 45% on cheddar cheese and 51% on barley. The National Farmers’ Union projects farm incomes would crash by 60-80% in a no-deal scenario. It would be catastrophic.

So the problem with Mr Eustice’s plan isn’t the hazy ELM scheme that may, or may not, emerge soon — it is the long-term vision.

The Secretary of State was very clear that in seven years, British farmers are going to be competing with farmers from across the globe without the support of any subsidy for farming itself. It is about the oldest of neoliberal dreams — killing off state involvement and throwing open our country (and countryside) to free trade and deregulation. In any other industry this might make sense, but given the screwed-up nature of global farming economics it doesn’t. And it’s worth noting that the one or two places that don’t subsidise agriculture have suffered dire ecological results.

A cynic might say that this looks rather like Thatcherism 2.0, with farmers as the new miners, rural deregulation wrapped in glossy-green wrapping paper. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a terrifying ill-thought-out approach. Politicians are rather fond of talking about competition being a good thing, but they are sending us out to compete with farmers who have the state support that we lack, and who are protected by tariffs. This isn’t competition as anyone sane would recognise it.

We are to be collateral damage as the politicians try to deliver Brexit at any cost, imposing free trade, deregulating the countryside and unleashing wilfully blind free-market economics on farming. Their vision of the future is brutal, and barely lessened by the years of help to “transition” from the CAP. It is like someone telling you they are going to throw you off a cliff in seven years’ time but not to worry because they will teach you to fly first — you ask them how, when no one else has ever done it, and they shrug and say, “we haven’t worked it out yet, but you are definitely going off that cliff”.

The future they are creating is a perfect storm of crappiness — massive tariffs imposed on what we sell to our main markets, a slashing of the support payment system that we were part of in the EU, a lot of deregulation, and a whole heap of new competitors through new “free trade” deals which will allow imports produced in ways that are illegal here.

Even the green bit — the ELM — has yet to commit to paying a fair or decent price for things that will do a great deal of public good, like carbon sequestration or flood alleviation. It is not even clear that they have a methodology for paying for these natural outcomes.

We have a farming and food economy that is worth well in excess of £100 billion a year, and if it encourages farming that isn’t ecologically sound, as it often does by driving down prices beneath the cost of sustainable production, then you can’t make it all okay with £2.7 billion of ELM type payments. You have to grapple with trade policies to protect farmers from being undercut on price by worse farming systems; you have to regulate poor practices to raise their cost; you have to curb the cartel-like power of supermarkets; and even do the unthinkable, and make food more expensive to reflect its true cost (and make sure to help the poorest in our society by redistributing wealth  so they can afford it). If your focus stops on the £2.7 billion you are tweaking round the edges of a disaster, not fixing it.

Unfortunately, the idea that food and farming can manage without state support is a fantasy in a world in which every government is entangled in its domestic agriculture. Trying to disentangle this will drive down prices and lead to further intensification on farmland, potentially making much of farmed England worse for nature (yes, that’s possible) and exporting our food footprint to places where we don’t see the damage or costs.

When I was a kid, a scrapman used to come to the farm in a white van and would occasionally buy machinery or old gates, or rolls of rusting wire for scrap money, or take it to “clean it up”. It was sometimes a useful function, because the scrap had to be got rid of, but the fella was dodgy, and my old man used to say “keep an eye on him, or we will find things missing when he’s gone”. I think I feel the same way about the Government’s plan for agriculture — it may do some good for rural England, but if I were you I’d keep an eye on it, because later on you might well notice that some valuable possessions have gone missing.

James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.