THE WELSH GOVERNMENT’S consultation on its Agriculture (Wales) White Paper closed on Thursday, March 25.

The Government’s consultation centred on the legislative framework for Welsh farming and contained a series of controversial proposals for regulatory reform, farming subsidies, and how agriculture knits into Labour’s future priorities. The key battlegrounds in the consultation are the clash between Labour’s metropolitan-focused worldview and how farmers work at the sharp end of government policy.

The White Paper remains very much a work in progress. Even if the next Welsh Government can pilot it through the Sixth Welsh Parliament unamended (highly unlikely), there remains a host of secondary legislation.

Those measures are likely to be central to future arguments between the government and farming organisations.

CULTURE CLASH

The paper sets out a 15-20-year vision to create a sustainable agricultural sector, detailing how farmers will be supported to ‘produce food sustainably’. Proposals will see the replacement of the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and agri-environment schemes with a new Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS).

The last of the above lies behind a massive difference of outlook between farmers and the Government. Labour’s aspirations for creating a green and pleasant land are – in places – incompatible with running farms as commercial enterprises.

One of the White Paper’s core problems is that it ignores tenant farmers’ position in Wales. To benefit from the subsidy for carrying out the sort of ‘greening’ works to attract payments, tenant farmers face forking out tens of thousands of pounds on land they do not own. The benefit of those works would fall to the landowner and future tenants. Therefore, those who hold Agricultural Business Tenancies are placed at an immediate disadvantage by Labour’s proposals.

There is no serious disagreement between farming organisations and Labour on the need for improvements to environmental measures. However, tension exists between the former’s aspirations and wish to play to the ‘green vote’ and making farming pay for those who farm.

WALES NEEDS A POLICY FOR WALES

The Farmers’ Union of Wales called for a genuine Welsh policy to meet Welsh objectives.

“We, of course, agree that public goods should be an important part of a future rural support scheme. However, delivering employment, economic, social and cultural prosperity should also underpin the design of future support mechanisms,” said FUW president Glyn Roberts.

“We have a proud history of designing agricultural policy for Wales. We have previously deviated significantly from English policies – much to our benefit – and we should continue to do so.

“Scotland and Northern Ireland are making the most of their devolved powers. They are forging ahead with plans to use multiple tools to deliver what is needed for their own agriculture and rural communities,” he said.

“Wales should, therefore, abandon the ‘cut-and-paste-from-Defra’ mentality. The Welsh Government must design a scheme aimed specifically at delivering both environmental outcomes and prosperity, jobs, language, culture and other targets,” said Mr Roberts.

“We are facing massive uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, new trade barriers thrown up by Brexit, and potential trade deals with countries with far lower standards than our own.

“The White Paper proposes to ratchet up rules and restrictions and further distance farm support from food production. That will exacerbate these problems and threaten the viability of the Welsh family farms that are central to our rural economies and culture.”

WHITE PAPER IGNORES SMALL FAMILY FARMS

With most Welsh farms small and family-run, Glyn Roberts expressed dismay at the White Paper’s failure to acknowledge their importance to farming and broader rural Welsh culture.
“Shockingly, no mention of capping payments or focussing support on family farms is made in the white paper given the current progressive approach adopted in Wales and the dangers inherent to the one-dimensional public goods approach,” said Mr Roberts.

“By comparison, the Welsh farming industry’s alternative proposals would encompass environmental, social, cultural and economic priorities in a balanced and fair way,” he added.

Mr Roberts noted the tiny number of changes to the Public Goods proposals set out in the Brexit and our Land and Sustainable Farming and our Land consultations in 2018 and 2019. He observed the lack of changes led FUW members to wonder whether the Welsh Government was ignoring farmers’ concerns.

“Our members are going to be directly affected by any changes to Wales’ agricultural policies and support schemes. They are frustrated the Welsh Government ignored points raised by them and farming organisations in response to previous consultations,” he said.

“Whilst we welcome the narrative around the importance of sustainable food production, the delivery mechanisms proposed here do not reflect this. They are based purely on environmental goods, without recognising the supply of safe, traceable food produced to high standards and our family farms’ central role in doing this.

“When we spoke to our members, many were of the view that the environmental outcomes desired by Welsh Government generally resulted in ‘doing or farming less’. This, of course, causes concern for the wider rural economy. Rural Wales benefits greatly from farmers’ local expenditure and activity, as well as species which rely on agriculture and land management to thrive,” added the Union President.

PROPOSALS SHOULD FOCUS ON SUSTAINABLE GROWTH

NFU Cymru President John Davies shared Glyn Roberts’ concerns. 

“The Welsh Government’s future policy proposals do not share NFU Cymru’s ambition and vision for the sustainable growth of the food and farming sector in Wales.”

Mr Davies continued: “I am pleased that the White Paper recognises the strong case for supporting farmers into the future. However, I am also clear that we should be ambitious for our future.  Wales must have a plan for the sustainable growth of the food and farming sector. We produce the most climate-friendly food in the world in a landscape and environment where nature is thriving.

“This White Paper is hugely important to all of us. A future Agriculture (Wales) Bill sets the framework under which the Welsh Government will deliver policies and regulations affecting farmers in Wales.

“Covid-19 has reaffirmed to all of us the importance of healthy, nutritious, high-quality food available to all in society. It has highlighted the importance of short sustainable food supply chains and the value and importance the consumer places on home produced food delivered to world-leading standards.

“I am convinced future policy for Wales must have, at its heart, a focus on securing the continued supply of safe, high quality, traceable, and affordable Welsh food at all price points.

“NFU Cymru continues to disagree with the adviser-led approach to a future policy being proposed by the Welsh Government. The most effective approach to provide access to the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) would be to modify the existing online portal and Single Application Form developed by Rural Payments Wales in co-design with industry. This is familiar to farmers and is proven to operate effectively.”

NEXT GOVERNMENT MUST WORK WITH FARMERS

John Davies continued: “Regulation is a source of constant anxiety for farmers. It can impact the well-being of farming families. In confidence surveys undertaken by the union, it invariably comes across as one of the critical factors that harm agriculture businesses.

“We agree with the Welsh Government that there is now an opportunity to develop a better regulatory landscape. It must be appropriately designed and implemented to achieve its aims. However, it must also allow Welsh farmers to continue to do what they do best – provide a safe and affordable supply of Welsh food.

“To achieve this, NFU Cymru proposes that the Welsh Government works alongside the industry to undertake a full-scale review and analysis of the current regulations impacting agriculture.

“NFU Cymru strongly believes that regulation and policy decisions should be based on the most robust body of scientific evidence. Risk, science and evidence must be at the heart of policy and decision making.”

Mr Davies concluded: “The White Paper and subsequent Agriculture (Wales) bill will now be taken forward by the next Welsh Government and Senedd. I will be very interested in the coming weeks to hear from politicians of all parties their vision and ambitions for Wales to see how closely they match ours.”