With Brexit looming, the time to discuss the future of British agriculture is now. “Britain’s farmers will need help” says the Financial Times; “Farmers who vote leave now in deep regret” claims the Independent. But don’t worry, there’ll be some provision, promises Theresa May’s government, in some form, and at some time. But what do we really want and, more importantly, need to see in the coming months of negotiation?
Well, The National Trust has called for a total reform of the subsidies programme, and that is a fantastic place to start. It is time to tear back the basic income support system and consider the work of our farmers in an environmental market context. As it stands, the current system sidelines successful arable methods, crushes incentives to innovate, and wraps agribusiness in regulatory red tape.
Subsidies, and the broader government approach to farming, entirely fails to account for the negative externalities created by the industry that effect not just the UK, but contribute massively to the global climate change dilemma. Ignorance is no longer an option for us, we cannot continue to ignore this pressing issue, no matter how politically inconvenient it may be.
Once upon a time, subsidies for agriculture made a lot of sense. When you have inelastic demand for goods and an inelastic supply of produce, you need to be able to stay in business and produce even when you have a bad year. But a lot has changed since then: our crops are much hardier now, and more controversially, we pump our cattle with so many chemicals and antibiotics before killing them off within just a few years that we overwhelmingly over-supply animal-products. This means that the British consumer has access to British milk and Angus steak at a cheaper price, but is not paying the full cost. The subsidised price does not take in to consideration the environmental implications that the product has had throughout the process.
The peculiar thing is that no other industry is still subsidised this way, because when an industry struggles and fails, we don’t tolerate it. Instead we import from another country that has a comparative advantage in that sector. In this sense, protectionism over free trade has very serious consequences for our environment and the taxpayer.
Ultimately, there are two points to take away from this discussion:
First, this is a golden opportunity to do something about the disaster that agricultural subsidies have become. The system is a cesspit of government failure, and it is draining obscene quantities of money that can be better spent elsewhere. Brexit provides not only the opportunity to reevaluate the system, incentivise innovation in farming, and put the free market first… but it presents the chance to save billions.
Second, it is time to start talking about agriculture in the environmental context that is the unfortunate reality. Pastoral agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution, deforestation, and emissions contributions globally. We need to internalise those externalities, and we can do so through the free market price mechanism and allowing producers to embrace consumer demands.
This is a big discussion, and one that is long over due. However, we have a very real opportunity to demand a better system that not only helps the industry and consumers, but helps the environment.