Cold comfort for farmers

A full Brexit would give the UK an opportunity to re-set our relationship with the land and the seas — if the current impasse is resolved so that we are no longer bound by CAP

Jamie Blackett

“Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.” So wrote Jonathan Swift in 1726. It is a precept that has driven generations of farmers ever since but maybe not for much longer. During this Queen’s reign, average household spending on food in the UK has fallen from 40 per cent to ten per cent. And despite the recent proliferation of food banks, we live in an age of plenty. The food banks, recipients of food that would otherwise be wasted, are themselves evidence of surpluses that would once have been unimaginable. Helm’s assumption is that “the possibility of Britain being cut off from foreign food supplies . . . is absurd: it is just silly.” Maybe he is right, although as warfare becomes increasingly post-conventional and the likelihood is that future conflict will involve starving our island of food and energy supplies by drone, cyber and biological attacks on the relatively few super-tankers and mega-ports we have come to rely on, reducing our self-sufficiency much below its current 60 per cent may be a risk politicians should be unwilling to take.

Nevertheless, a full Brexit would give the UK an opportunity to re-set our relationship with the land and the seas — if the current impasse is resolved so that we are no longer bound by the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP). Dieter Helm is an Oxford economics don and brings the dismal science to bear in setting out a highly comprehensive blueprint for how we might reshape environmental policy. He has a highly jaundiced view of modern agriculture coloured by the destructive conversion of his grandfather’s 350-acre farm in Essex into one large arable field in the 1960s. Mixed farmers outside the arable South and East will be justifiably irritated at being tarred with the same brush. But it is hard not to agree with his central thesis that we have wreaked havoc on our wildlife since the Second World War in pursuit of cheap food and we should now look upon our countryside in terms of its natural capital and recalibrate support mechanisms to reward good ecology with subsidy and to tax pollution. Enlightened farmers are used to seeing the returns from the land in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, and many do want to farm less intensively to enjoy richer birdlife and wild flowers as long as there is still a living to be made. Professor Helm is fairer than many environmental activists in acknowledging that “70 years of subsidies have not brought prosperity to the bulk of farmers”. However, he acknowledges the possibility of “an awful violence to our farmers” as many go out of business as a result of the reforms he proposes. His rather utopian solution of insisting on carbon taxes and welfare standards at the border to avoid simply exporting production overseas may not stand up to the demands of the free traders, or indeed a porous Irish border.

Vegans looking for support from this book will disappointed; Helm is surely right in his belief that the damage to our soils, and therefore to invertebrates and bird populations, is down to the decline of mixed farming regimes and the replacement of manure from livestock with artificial fertilisers. He is also dismissive of the Rousseauists who would like to re-wild the countryside simply by abandoning it. He is perhaps rather too credulous of the anti-shooting lobby — gamekeepers are now responsible for more hen harriers rather than fewer — and consequently quick to re-engineer the uplands. His assertion that “being home to a lot of biodiversity now does not mean they will continue to be so” needs challenging. One senses that Helm has never marvelled at the majesty of a deer forest during the rut or enjoyed the rich diversity of birdlife on well-managed heather moorland, even if these are artificially managed environments. And, in the absence of scientific proof and in support of the precautionary principle, he has a Luddite attitude towards the glyphosate (trade name Roundup) that allows farmers  e to dispense with invasive ploughing and dramatically improve top-soils to assist carbon capture and drainage. The picture of a ploughed field on the cover is telling.

For all its good intentions, the second half of the book descends into a depressingly interventionist agenda of Stalinist-lite five-year plans and bureaucratic controls for the countryside backed up by Orwellian policing of “compliance” by drones and satellites. He may fail to convince the rural reader that the word “prosperous” in the title will apply to farmers under his proposed regime but rather to civil servants through the extension of the Big State in partnership with its greedy and arrogant nephew Green Quango. This is a rather soulless book, despite the author’s obvious concern for nature. One assumes that Helm has the ear of government as Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, and for that reason alone it should to be read by anyone interested in future environmental policy to gain clues as to what the future may hold for the countryside.

Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside
By Dieter Helm
William Collins, 268pp, £20

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