The Defra Agriculture Minister James Paice told his fellow farmers that he wanted them to be able to opt out of their current agri-environment agreements if CAP reform changed the rules. This seems fair enough to me. I can’t quickly find his words on the Defra website but the Farmers Weekly report them here. Mr Paice’s comments were welcomed by both the NFU (here) and the CLA (here).
The NFU claims that English farmers are ‘ahead of the game’ on environmental management. This is the new version of the ‘there is no biodiversity crisis’ argument and I’d like to know what is the evidence that English farming is ahead of the game. We do know that English farmland is ahead of most of Europe in the rate of decline of farmland birds but that can’t be what the NFU means, can it?
The CLA say that we can be incredibly proud of our agri-environment schemes which suggests that they too are simply ignoring the continuing decline of farmland birds on land in and out of the Entry Level Scheme.
Both the NFU and the CLA seem to be of the view that all is OK here in England and those nasty foreigners might be ganging up on us when they talk about ‘our’ farmers being ‘disadvantaged’. This is just pandering to, and indeed fuelling, the current mood of anti-European feeling.
I agree that when the rules or circumstances change then it is fair for farmers to be able to stop the agreements they are in. In return I would like Defra to take the new evidence that farmland birds are at their lowest level since 1970 to revise those same agri-environment schemes so that they deliver some decent returns to the taxpayer. Why not change the rules at any time in the agreement period if things have changed? After all, the price of wheat is high so that has changed, and the number of farmland birds have changed too, and the country is in economic hard times and yet farming payments roll on as though the world were unchanged.
But the CLA and NFU are stirring up concern about the CAP greening proposals unnecessarily in my reading of things. It is not a proposal to remove 7% of land from production as Farmers Weekly suggests but a proposal to have 7% of land in ecological friendly management. The difference is that currently unproductive land would count towards the 7% figure, as I understand it, and as set out by the EU itself, this 7% would include any existing hedges, ponds, patches of trees etc and I cannot believe that it wouldn’t also include land already in agri-environment schemes. And that’s how it should be – no-one, not even I, would suggest that a farmer in an existing agri-environment scheme should be made to do even more as though his (or her) current environmental contribution didn’t count at all – it wouldn’t make sense, and I don’t think that is what was intended.
So, Mr Paice, how about talking to the people who provide the money for the CAP and telling the taxpayer what he and she will get for their money in future? What is your stewardship pledge to the taxpayer?