Challenges for agricultural governance across the UK

Industry reform, long-term investment and decisions for policy around food and farm quality assurance standards are key considerations for the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland, even without Brexit, says agricultural law lecturer Mary Dobbs.

Queen’s University Belfast’s Mary Dobbs believes that the backstop, as contained within the Brexit withdrawal agreement submitted by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons, does not dilute Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK.

“This is my opinion which, I know, is totally at odds with the views expressed by members of the DUP,” says Dobbs. The academic offered the analysis in the context of a presentation assessing the potential challenges for agricultural governance across the UK.

She couched her comments in the context of both a hard Brexit and the outcomes that will follow in the event of the European Union and the UK reaching a deal. If a no deal outcome is arrived at, Dobbs makes it clear that EU law will no longer apply to the UK, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will no longer apply, but World Trade Organisation (WTO) and international law will generally apply.

“The impact of these various measures will vary across the UK, depending on farm type and the sectors concerned,” she explains. With regard to the EU Withdrawal Act, Dobbs says that its impact, if and when it is passed, has yet to be assessed.

“We know that the UK will continue replicating the current CAP payments for the next couple of years but legally speaking, the current situation is extremely ambiguous, where farming is concerned.”

Dobbs references the recent publication of an Agriculture Bill for England and questions its future relevance for Northern Ireland.

The Bill sets out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for “public goods”, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.

This will replace the current subsidy system of Direct Payments in England. In their place, It is envisaged that a new Environmental Land Management system will start from next year.

The Government will work together with farmers to design, develop and trial the new approach. Under the new system, farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits will secure the largest rewards.

The Bill will also be underpinned by measures to increase productivity and invest in research and development. For example, there will be funding available for farmers to come together to develop and get the research projects that they want and need, whether that be on soil health or sustainable livestock farming. This will lead to practical gains for farmers that help them become more profitable and reduce their environmental footprint.

Dobbs points out that even a softish Brexit will have profound effects on agriculture and its governance, adding: “We will leave the CAP within any Brexit scenario.”

The academic explains that Brexit poses tremendous challenges for Northern Ireland, from an agricultural policy planning perspective. Among the issues to be addressed in this context are the need to reform the industry, even if we were to remain within the EU, long-term investment requirements and the decisions that must be taken with regard to the food and farm quality assurance standards across farming and food as a whole.

“The production standards achieved will reflect on our ability to secure new export markets for locally produced food,” stresses Dobbs. “Trade matters are dealt with by London while issues pertaining to production agriculture and the environment are handled by the devolved administrations throughout the UK.

“However, in practice, a range of other factors kick-in when it comes to deciding domestic agricultural policies. We must be mindful of WTO law, other international regulations and the existing trading arrangements that are already in place around the world.

“Here in Northern Ireland we are losing out badly because the Stormont Executive is missing in action.”

“The removal of direct payments, as envisaged in the Agriculture Bill for England, would have very serious consequences for farmers in Northern Ireland. Protecting small farms is crucial as they make a very important contribution to the rural economy as a whole.”

Dobbs references the response issued by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to the Agriculture Bill for England. This proposes that the system of agricultural support should remain largely unchanged for the 2020–2021 CAP scheme years, and that Direct Payments continue to be paid during that period on the same terms as under the CAP.

Beyond 2021, the Department suggests a number of policy options aimed at achieving four key objectives: increased productivity; improved resilience; environmental sustainability; and efficiency and competitiveness in supply chains. On Direct Payments, it proposes that income support payments be continued as a “basic farm resilience support measure”.

This would be paid at a level below that currently offered, and over time support would be delivered not through an area payment but through policies aimed at driving productivity growth and environmental sustainability.

Other proposals include the development of new incentives for farmers to attain formal qualifications; the promotion of longer term land leases; involving farmers in the co-design of new “outcome based” environmental schemes; and incentives to encourage collaboration within supply chains, such as preferential access to government support.

Dobbs says that simply taking the English approach to agricultural policy would have profound effects here in Northern Ireland.

“Food security and quality must be made priority issues for local agriculture moving forward. Other matters to be addressed include those of the length of food supply chains, the need to develop a sustainable rural economy and maintaining biodiversity in the countryside.”

She gave a broad steer to the effect that direct payments must be retained as part of the farm support mix in Northern Ireland adding: “Farm stakeholders here must continue to lobby and work with policy makers throughout the UK.

“Innovation must be at the heart of the changes that take place within the farming sector. Improving self sufficiency is crucial. There would also be significant benefit derived from the maintenance of EU standards across all our farming and food sectors.”

Dobbs concludes: “The removal of direct payments, as envisaged in the Agriculture Bill for England, would have very serious consequences for farmers in Northern Ireland. Protecting small farms is crucial as they make a very important contribution to the rural economy as a whole.

“The removal of direct payments is likely to significantly increase the number of farmers leaving agriculture for good. This would have a very negative impact on the rural economy of Northern Ireland.

“Brexit, whichever way it works out, will have a major impact on the future prospects for agriculture in Northern Ireland. Stakeholders must be up to the job of making the decisions that best prepare the industry for the challenges that lie ahead.”

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