UK food, farm and land use policy needs to catch up with the rest of the world


  • Picture of Jonathan Baker
    Jonathan Baker
    Senior Land Use Policy Adviser, CLA

For forty years the EU has dominated British agriculture, environment and rural land use policy. 57% of environmental regulations, half of farmers income and most of the blame originates in Brussels. Few other policy areas are so EU-centric and fewer still demonstrate sustained failure.

As shown by persistently high rural poverty, environmental decline and flat lining agricultural productivity, rural and agricultural policies need a refresh and leaving the EU provides an opportunity. Under almost every Brexit scenario the UK will need to develop its first agricultural and rural policy for almost two generations. The future is not without risks, but there are undoubtedly positives from leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Recognising this unfrozen moment, as the RSA have, I visited South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Brazil and Switzerland to find the ideas, insights and interventions that could enhance ongoing debates about future agricultural and rural policies.

From my time in these countries it is apparent that although the UK’s ambitions for reform are unprecedented, a reliance on existing tools and centralised policy making risks missing the opportunities provided by this moment of change.

Let’s bring decisions closer to the ground

In contrast to the UK, local and regional Governments in the countries I visited had clear responsibilities and powers relating to agriculture and rural land use. In Japan for instance, I met officials across their three tiers of Government, each with clear and complementary roles related to rural land use. At the national level, Maoki Matsumiya was responsible for the design and budget of Japan’s Environmentally Friendly Farming (EFF) subsidy scheme. In Kobe, Takashi Hasako managed the team who implemented and adapted EFF to fit the priorities of Hyōgo Prefecture. Takemi San knew the names of most of the farmers in his municipality and used his energy and charisma to audit EFF whilst ensuring that it addressed the social issues of Sasayama area – namely depopulation and poor farming incomes. 

I observed similar national-regional-local systems in New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland. Farmers, environmentalists and policy-makers talked of the value of being able to adapt policies and programmes to create a diversity of ideas and approaches.

It was noticeable that compared to the eternal woes of implementing the CAP in England, no one in the countries visited felt that administration of agricultural policies was a problem. Local accountability and adaptability seemed to avoid the sprawling rule-driven administration we specialise in.

How we can re-design policy by consensus

The impact of farming on New Zealand’s environment was and remains subject to rancorous debate. A major expansion of intensive dairying has increased the profitability of the farming sector, but at the cost of water quality.

New Zealand has a history of consensus policy making and in 2009 the then New Zealand Government asked the recently formed Land and Water Forum (LAWF) to address the impasse.

LAWF is a stakeholder forum consisting of farming representatives, NGOs, regional councils and iwi and indigenous right groups. 

Government set the ‘what’ - such as % reductions in e.coli in the water and a % of rivers that had to be swimmable by 2040. Members of LAWF were tasked with the how. LAWF developed a process for translating the outcomes into a set of regulations and recommendations which, importantly had to be based on group consensus.

EU regulations dominate rural land use. As the UK considers the design of future land based regulatory system and looks to address some of the failures of the EU’s there is a real opportunity to use a similar, consensus driven approach.

LAWF had a tricky life. Frequently stymied by a political unwillingness to implement hard decisions and frustrated by the unwieldiness of consensus policy making. But as a model for taking forward challenging reforms and avoiding the traditional decide, announce, defend model of Whitehall a similar approach may be the best way of improving environmental outcomes and bureaucratic efficiency post EU-exit.

Agricultural and rural policies are about more than money

Compared to the countries I visited, the agriculture and rural land use debate in the UK is impoverished. Since the 2005 McSharey reforms, agricultural policy in the EU has been dominated by a series of major, and majorly expensive, programmes where the EU takes money from Member State contributions and sends it directly to individual farmers. Direct support remains the EU’s major policy intervention. It’s a legacy the UK will retain for some time.

Although important and, if appropriately targeted, potentially transformative, there is much more to agricultural and rural policies than direct support. 

The countries I visited have a diversity of regulatory, fiscal, legal and financial interventions. For example, faced with ageing and often part-time farmers reluctant or unable to leave the land, South Korea created a set of agricultural pensions contingent on ceasing farming. Access to land is highly regulated in Norway in an attempt to limit farm size and stop land being treated as a commodity. Japan’s hometown dues allow urban workers to pass some of their income tax back to their underfunded rural areas. South Korea have created a successful high end horticultural sector by identifying areas with potential – in terms of soil, weather and access to markets – and then focused interventions on them.

These policies and others may not directly transfer to the UK context, but we need a richer and more creative set of interventions if we are to make the most of the opportunities presented by leaving the EU.


Jonathan Baker, Senior Land Use Policy Adviser at CLA (Country Land and Business Association) and Nuffield Scholar, visited six countries looking at their agricultural and environmental policies. He wrote this blog for the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

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