Alan Smith discusses post-Brexit agricultural policy
The prospect of Brexit being implemented in some form or other makes it timely to consider the national policy for agriculture. It is not a necessary consequence that we should go for unconditional free trade as has sometimes been implied. We could, for instance, implement something like the Common Agricultural Policy at a national level. Another suggestion is for free trade without subsidies for agriculture, but with subsidies to farmers for making land available for recreational purposes, though to my mind this is putting the cart before the horse (or, to show that we are up to date, perhaps we should say, ‘putting the cart before the tractor.’)
What is the countryside for? It has been claimed that, in Britain, tourism has a higher turnover than agriculture and this is no doubt true in purely financial terms. However, in the Second World War, tens of thousands of merchant seamen died. What were they bringing to Britain, besides munitions and allied troops? Let me give you a clue: they were not bringing tourists.
In constructing an agricultural policy I would start from a basis of free trade. But this should not be unconditional. There must be various restrictive conditions that are discussed below. A first condition is the quality of food. We should not permit the import of food that does not meet the standards we impose on our own farmers, for this would put them at a disadvantage. A second condition is that we should not permit the import of animal products that come from farms that do not meet our regulations on animal welfare. In addition, we should ban the import and export of live animals for slaughter when they reach their destination. Animals that are to be slaughtered for food should be killed humanely as close as possible to the farms on which they were raised.
We should avoid the dumping of agricultural products and the selling of food below the cost of production. This can damage the economies of poor countries by ruining their own farming, both the production of food for themselves and for the export of food to their traditional markets. In a national disaster overseas it may be necessary to give food to the country or countries concerned, but care would need to be taken not to damage their normal suppliers.
The main role of the countryside is to provide us with food. I am not arguing that we should provide all our own food and not import any; we live in an interdependent world. But we should remember the warning: ‘Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be?’
Under normal conditions we should be happy to buy and sell agricultural products from and to other countries. However, we should be prepared for a serious crisis in which either there are physical constraints on the movement of food, or the price of food on the international market makes it suddenly impossible for us to buy it. To cope with this we need two things. The first is to maintain our agricultural production at a level that would permit the expansion of each type of product from that minimum level to the level required for self-sufficiency at an acceptable subsistence level. The second is to maintain stocks of each type of food to cover the needs of our country during the transition from normal to emergency conditions. If, for any type of food, the price of imported food fell below either the cost of production in the UK or the cost of maintaining production at or above the minimum level required for possible self-sufficiency, then we should consider measures necessary to protect our agriculture.
To determine for each type of food the minimum acceptable production level we should calculate what level of expansion is possible in a reasonable time. For example, it may be possible to double the quantity of wheat produced in a year or two, but not to increase it one hundred-fold. The government could pay farmers to leave a certain amount of land to lie fallow in order to allow the speedy expansion of production. As a consequence the land could be used for recreational purposes, but this would be a by-product of the policy and not its purpose. Consideration would also need to be given to the increases in the workforce and equipment that would be required.
This proposal for possibly moving to self-sufficiency may appear to be expensive and burdensome, but it should be seen as an insurance. A wise driver, after a year of accident-free driving, does not say to himself: ‘Well, that insurance policy was a waste of time and money!’