The consultation Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit, published by the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA), said the current direct payments scheme under the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which is currently based on the amount of land farmed, is “inefficient and inequitable”.
It is proposing that money be redirected to a new system of paying farmers “public money for public goods” that would pay them based on their work to enhance the environment and investment in sustainable food production.
The government said other public goods could be supported by the scheme including investment in technology and skills to improve productivity, providing public access to farmland and the countryside, enhancing welfare standards for livestock and measures to support the resilience of rural and upland communities
The government pledged to continue to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament in 2022.
It also set proposals for ‘agricultural transition’, which would last beyond the implementation period during which direct payments would continue. The aim of this is to provide stability and certainty for farmers as they prepare for the new system, it said.
Under the proposals there would also be reductions to direct payments to the largest landowners, which could free up around £150M in the first year of the agricultural transition period. This could be used to help farmers that are delivering environmental enhancements and other public goods, the consultation suggested.
“As we leave the EU, we have a historic opportunity to deliver a farming policy which works for the whole industry. Today we are asking for the views of those who will be affected to make sure we get this right so any future schemes reflect the reality of life for farmers and food producers,” said Gove.
“The proposals in this paper set out a range of possible paths to a brighter future for farming. They are the beginning of a conversation, not a conclusion and we want everyone who cares about the food we eat and the environment around us to contribute.”
DEFRA is asking for views on how long the transition period should be; how to gradually phase out direct payments; what range of public goods could qualify for government funding under the new scheme, such as high animal welfare standards, wildlife protection, public access, and new technologies.
The industry reacted swiftly to the news of the consultation.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) issued a note of warning about overhauling the current system, which already supports farmers.
"In order to keep delivering for Britain, farm businesses need to be productive, profitable and resilient to volatility. This must be at the forefront of government policy if we are to have a farming sector that feeds us, cares for our countryside and delivers economic benefits,” said NFU president Minette Batters.”
"While most British farmers would much rather farm without support, what we must be absolutely sure of is a level playing field. British farms cannot compete with others countries' agricultural goods on the global market if we are disadvantaged.”
"It is vital that we don’t start overhauling parts of the current system which support farmers in providing a healthy and affordable supply of food, without tested and operational alternative programmes and measures in place.”
NFU Scotland’s president Andrew McCornick welcomed the fact that the policy document struck the right balance between common rules for the whole UK and room for devolved regions to diverge on policy.
“Whilst most of the measures proposed are for England-only, they are of significant interest as Scotland and the other devolved administrations develop their own suites of measures to support agriculture and land management after we leave the CAP,” he said.
“Of note are the possible timescales as the UK goes through an ‘implementation’ phase largely within the CAP ahead of an ‘agricultural transition’ when a new system will be phased in.”
Meanwhile, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) argued that sustainable food production must be at the heart of any agricultural policy.
“UK manufacturers rely upon our farmers to provide them with a reliable source of raw materials and ingredients,” said an FDF spokesman.
“It is vital that future agricultural policy delivers for manufacturers, so we can continue to feed the nation in the way shoppers and consumers have come to enjoy and expect.”
The statement came as the FDF also unveiled its latest export statistics that revealed that any failure to secure continued access to the EU’s many preferential trade deals could have serious implications for the food and drink industry, as exports to these markets were now worth more than £2bn to UK producers.
The consultation will run for ten weeks, closing on 8 May 2018.