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Less than 24 hours after we launched the RSA’s new Commission to investigate future options for food, farming and countryside on Wednesday evening, Thursday morning’s papers had announced the answer.

According to a new briefing from Chatham House, the UK should follow New Zealand’s example and adopt a ‘market-oriented’ agricultural policy, with low subsidies and trade barriers.

Why? In short, to cut costs. It would be cheaper for us as shoppers because food prices would fall, and as taxpayers because we wouldn’t be paying all that subsidy.

The new briefing challenges the emerging consensus among conservation groups and the farming industry that Government should keep spending the same money but with green strings attached –that public spending is warranted where it yields real public benefits. Why should farming get special treatment, asks Chatham House. Wouldn’t it be better simply to have strong environmental regulation, and the polluter pay?

Far from putting the matter to bed, the pronouncements from Chatham House underline the need for the new Commission.

Its new briefing acknowledges downsides to its New Zealand prescription. Not least, it would put lots of farms out of business and make the countryside less diverse. No big deal, argues Chatham House - a healthy economy can cope with redundancies, and the 100,000 every year in manufacturing are equivalent to a fifth of the agricultural workforce.

The strength of concern this has prompted shows how far others disagree. NFU Scotland, for example, said this posed “huge risks”. That debate over the wider public benefits of employment in agriculture, the distinctive value of farming jobs and livelihoods, and the part diverse farms play in the fabric of our rural communities, is at the heart of the issues our Commissioners will grapple with. These are questions where we should listen to people living and working in those communities, and to taxpayers and shoppers who never visit them, rather than bullishly assuming they don’t care, or that a job is just a job.

Yet beyond these vital debates about values, there’s a second way the Chatham House briefing shows the need for the new Commission: its analysis, and the wins it claims for the environment and for taxpayers, need scrutiny.

For a start, Britain now is different from 1980s New Zealand, as an excellent note from AHDB sets out. We might well hope it stays that way. New Zealand’s success as an agricultural exporter was built on a currency crisis: in the ten years leading up to its agricultural reforms in 1984, the NZ dollar was devalued by 55%.

Fast forward to 2017 and the news from New Zealand isn’t too rosy either. The growth of dairy farming has gone hand in hand with rising nitrate pollution, soil compaction and a host of other problems – some carrying a clean-up cost for taxpayers.

Can’t we just regulate to prevent this, as Chatham House suggests? The likelihood is that UK farms would then produce less rather than better, outsourcing more of our food production and the impact that goes with it. We’d green our countryside but grow our overall footprint.

While regulation is important, the reality is that we also need to invest if it is to achieve its objectives. To keep productivity up while meeting higher standards on the environment and animal welfare – to “intensify sustainably”, in the jargon – takes investment. If food is cheaper than now, little of that investment can come from the agricultural market. Who else could invest? The most obvious candidate is the taxpayer, whether directly or indirectly, for example through water bills.

It seems, then, that we’re back where we started. Unless we put significant sums of public money into agriculture, we’re unlikely achieve the environmental standards that Chatham House agrees are necessary. So the discussion is about

  • The best way to spend that money, and how much is needed - not whether to spend it all
  • Where to invest, where to spend?
  • How much can be achieved through innovation and what part could farmers play in that?
  • How to integrate different land uses rather deal with farming, forestry and other activities on different tracks?   

These are the debates farmers and conservation groups are already having. They need to be opened up, bringing in other issues like health, wellbeing and rural livelihoods, and new voices, not closed down. 

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