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Most farmers have no confidence in post-Brexit agricultural policy

Changes to the agricultural sector following Brexit have been poorly received by English farmers, with many confused by “contradictory” policies.

Most farmers in England have no confidence in post-Brexit changes to agricultural policy, a new survey has revealed. 

New data from the Farming Opinion Tracker shows that 68 per cent of people who responded said they are “not at all confident” that the government’s new policies will lead to a successful future for farming in the country. 

The National Farming Union (NFU) said farmers have been left in an “untenable” position, with “very little detail” available about how the schemes will impact them and their businesses.

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The survey results come as the government faces harsh criticism from the NFU, with president Minette Batters calling its post-Brexit farming policies “completely contradictory” earlier this week. 

“We need a plan that pre-empts crises, rather than repeatedly runs into them … this country needs a strategy and a clear vision for what we expect from British farming,” she told an NFU conference in Birmingham.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the government announced it would be transitioning away from the European common agricultural policy, under which farmers received subsidies based on the amount of land they farmed. 

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In its place the government has announced three schemes to reward farmers for producing public goods such as tree-planting, alongside new grants and changes to farming regulation and enforcement. 

The idea behind the new schemes – known as environmental land management contracts (ELMs) – is to reward farmers taking measures to restore nature or improve other environmental factors such as water quality.

Many in the farming sector, however, have expressed concern that a renewed focus on using land for environmental improvement will lead to an increase in low-quality imports from overseas, with the government pursuing trade deals with countries where welfare standards are lower.

Concerns have also been raised over the phase-out of the former basic payments system, with fears that smaller farmers could go out of business in the transition to the new system because the tree-planting scheme is geared towards those who have more land to use.

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Data from the Farmer Opinion Tracker, collected in October 2021, showed that almost a third (30 per cent) of farmers said that they “did not have any information”, nor knew where to find information they needed to plan for changes to the agricultural system.

Alongside concerns over the post-Brexit subsidy system, farming has also faced multiple other pressures as a result of Brexit, including plunging exports, new red tape and severe staff shortages due to a lack of seasonal workers from the EU.

Staff shortages in abattoirs have led to the culling of thousands of healthy pigs, with an estimated 30,000 killed since September. 

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “Farmers in England are extremely concerned about the development of ELM schemes.

“Despite recent announcements from Defra on new schemes being introduced, there remains very little detail available for farmers, meaning they are unable to make informed decisions which will impact their businesses for years to come. This lack of information, at the exact time direct payments from current support schemes are being phased out, leaves farmers in an untenable position.

“Our vision for future policy is to support sustainable food production alongside environmental delivery and ensure it thrives well into the future. We urge government to engage with the NFU and farmers from across all sectors to make this a reality.”

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Mark Tufnell, President of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “It is absolutely right to move towards a system that incentivises and rewards environmentally friendly land-use, and I reject the false notion that we have to somehow choose between feeding the nation and caring for the environment.  The two must go hand in hand.

“I am wary of a narrative setting in that the direction of travel is wrong, and I call on DEFRA to dramatically improve its communications with farmers to give them the confidence that these new schemes can and will work for their businesses.

“We already have world-leading environmental and animal welfare standards, and can take great pride both in our produce and our stewardship of the land.  With the right government support, the ELMs can play a major role in delivering a profitable agriculture sector that meets the needs of the population, the environment and the economy. “

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