By Emily Beament, Press Association Environment Correspondent
Farmers have criticised the Government’s plans for agriculture after Brexit, warning they do not prioritise producing food to feed the nation.
Under the new Agriculture Bill, farmers will be paid for “public goods” such as curbing flooding, protecting and boosting wildlife and improving access to the countryside after the UK leaves the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP).
The current system of subsidies, known as direct payments, paid for the amount of land being farmed will be phased out over a seven-year period between 2021 and 2027, the Government has said.
There will be a shift towards “environmental land management contracts” which could span several years and see farmers paid for improving air and water quality, boosting wildlife and habitats and tackling climate change.
Payments will also be available for providing public access to land, tackling problems such as flooding and protecting the historic rural environment and landscapes.
But National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters warned the announcement about the plans did not mention food production, which should be “the number one priority”.
“There’s been a lot of talk about public money for public goods, but safe, affordable food, produced to traceable British farms is good for the public,” she said.
Ms Batters has warned the Government against a “national park approach that suspends this industry in aspic” and does not prioritise food production.
She also called for a fairer supply chain, with better returns to farmers and growers as a “prerequisite” of a move away from direct support.
If there was a “cliff-edge scenario” where the UK crashed out of the EU and was trading on World Trade Organisation rules, there would need to be a radical review of the plans, she said.
“Direct support would probably be the only lifeline to keep bread on the table for farmers and their livestock fed, it would be an incredibly challenged situation.”
She said it was “incredibly important” a deal was struck with the EU, and that the British Government should not rely on free trade deals with other countries to deliver the UK’s food security.
She also questioned claims by leading Brexiteers that quitting the EU would lead to cheaper food – pointing out the UK already had one of the cheapest food supplies for consumers.
“People like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, who are saying Brexit is great because we’re going to have cheaper food, that poses the question, where will that food come from? Who will be producing that food?”
She pointed to previous food controversies such as the horsemeat scandal and BSE to show the importance of secure food supplies.
She said: “Relying on free trade agreements to shore up food security is a very extraordinary way to go when you look at the volatile world we live in.”
Ms Batters also said the current £3 billion price tag of subsidies to farmers to invest in the price of food and caring for the environment was a good deal for consumers, and that the EU and the US heavily subsidise their farmers.
The Government wants farmers to be rewarded for the value of benefits they provide to people and the environment, rather than, as now, just compensated for the income they lose for carrying out environmental measures.
The aim is to provide simpler, more locally focused schemes than the moment, in which farmers decide how to deliver the environmental benefits they are paid for.
The direct payments for the amount of land farmed, part of the CAP, will start to reduce in 2021, with higher levels of reductions for landowners receiving the biggest payments.
In 2021, the reductions will free up to around £150 million to invest in piloting the new environmental schemes and investing in research and development, the Government said.
Payments could also be available for farmers to invest in new technologies and methods that boost productivity, and there will be pilot schemes to boost animal welfare.
Direct payments will be separated from the requirement to farm the land, and several years’ worth could be paid in a lump sum, which will give farmers money to invest in their business, diversify or even retire from farming.
The Agriculture Bill sets out legislation mostly for England.
A spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “As the Environment Secretary said this morning, the UK’s farmers produce food that is the envy of the world and our Bill will help them become more productive still.
“The Bill enables Government to provide financial assistance to improve agricultural productivity, supporting farmers to continue producing world-leading food. It also makes the supply chain fairer and more transparent.
“We have also ensured the agricultural transition will last a full seven years, giving farmers the time they need to adapt.
“We look forward to discussing the Bill with the NFU in greater detail.”