Post-Brexit Farm Policy – Outlook Across Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

What’s on the cards for farm policy in the UK nations post-Brexit and post-CAP? In the first part of this series, Ursula Billington reported on the state of play for England’s small-scale farmers and horticulturists. Here in Part 2, she talks to representatives from the Landworkers Alliance to gauge the situation in the devolved nations. 

The nations of the UK are facing individual challenges as they work to reform agricultural policy post-Brexit.

In England, Westminster has taken the most radical path in its restructuring of policy. The English trajectory towards a system that rewards farmers for public goods is discussed in Part 1 of this series.

Post-Brexit Farm Policy – Where Do England’s Smallholdings and Horticulture Sector Stand?

This article turns to the devolved nations, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are largely using the Common Agricultural Policy as a starting point for their post-Brexit systems. The retention of area-based payments is a common sticking point for organisations working to support small-scale farmers in each country.

The four governments share a policy reform rhetoric centred around environmental sustainability; the degree to which they are able to implement proposals and drive environmental change may be down to available resources, more limited in the devolved governments.

New trade regulations are also the domain of the central authority, causing further complication in efforts to develop devolved nations’ environmental food and farming standards which could well be at odds with the rules set around imports.

There is some hope, though, where governments are starting to listen, take notice and place a bit more faith in small-scale as a sustainable solution – as the organisations we spoke to attest.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, where, when averaged across farm types, 83% of farm incomes is derived from EU subsidies – compared to about 50% in the UK – some progress has been made on post-Brexit policy, but it has been waylaid by two collapses of the governing body in this time. There are plans to develop a ‘farming with nature’ scheme, rewarding farmers for adoption of sustainable practices with payments based on results. A focus on soil health aims to improve land resilience, but could be challenging given c.80% of land is used for livestock and feed.

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland (NI) has decided not to underpin future agricultural policy and payments through an Agriculture Act, reported Bridget Murphy during a panel discussion at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. According to Phil Carson, Sustainable Farming Lead for NI at the Nature Friendly Farming Network, this brings several challenges which risk stalling a transition to more regenerative farming and land management. A lack of domestic framework legislation puts transformation to sustainable methods at risk.

Organisations such as NI Environment Link, Nature Matter NI and GrowIN are working towards greater support for both small scale and environmentally sustainable farmers, in the form of payments and networks. Reworked policy proposals reduced the 10ha minimum size for Farm Sustainability Payments to 5ha, and made all farmers above 3ha eligible for Farming with Nature Payments.

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Scotland

The Scottish government is proposing a 4-tiered system encompassing area-based income support in the first tier with additional payments available for farm sustainability measures, nature-based projects such as a transition to organic or agroforestry, and landscape or catchment scale work such as peatland restoration.

The current government’s widely broadcast hope of re-joining the EU means the policy remains aligned with Europe as far as possible. In fact, according to Tara Wight, LWA Scotland Policy & Campaigns coordinator, the policy currently on the table appears to have more in common with the pre-reform CAP than the version brought in across the EU at the start of the year. Area-based payments remain without any discussion of mandatory payment capping or redistribution.

Issues arise given Scotland has the most concentrated land ownership in the EU, and the second most concentrated in the world. Tara Wight notes that where 70% of the country is designated farmland, very few landowners receive a substantial proportion of the available funds under the CAP. And, whilst the average farm size is fairly large, the significant number of small farmers – 40,000 farms and crofts under 20ha according to government figures – are neglected.

Tara explains that a large number of members farm under 3ha, the current minimum requirement for payments. “Area-based payments discriminate against small-scale farmers and crofters,” she says; “These are really important to the food system, supporting local communities.”

LWA Scotland has joined with other organisations on a ‘small farms and crofts’ campaign, advocating for their recognition in policy and financial support in the form of a universal basic income, with a certain amount given per active farmer rather than area of land. “Crofts are a really major part of farming culture in Scotland,” says Tara, but “there really isn’t anything about them in the proposals.”

Crofts – small plots and a house, usually rented but with security of tenure, and often with the right to graze animals on common land – are found in designated areas of Scotland, the crofting counties. They have always been covered by specific legislation, but tend to be forgotten in policy making. Crofting grants were previously covered by EU funds but there’s no clarity around their place post-reform.

The LWA, therefore, has joined farmer-led agroecology organisations including the Soil Association, the Crofting Federation, the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Propagate, to raise awareness of the benefits of small scale and its viability as an alternative to the industrial food system. Their launch demonstration outside parliament in October 2022 was a great success.

Whether it will turn in to anything concrete is still to be seen, but a Small Farms Scheme pilot has been proposed, which the LWA will be involved in. Tara’s trying to stay positive: “It still feels like putting small scale farming as an ‘other thing’ than agriculture, where we’re pushing for a transformation to a system where it’s ALL small scale and agroecological. But I think it does suggest they’ve been listening to some extent.”

Tara is also concerned the reforms do not go far enough in driving environmental improvements, though it will encourage some change particularly at a larger scale. But “there’s nothing about small scale as a solution; farming in a more agroecological way which allows us to feed more people more sustainably…to a certain extent is being disincentivised by these proposals.” The Bill itself will not include any climate targets; the country’s legally-binding target under the Climate Change Act of a 31% reduction in emissions from farming by 2030 does not look like it will be met under current policy proposals.

The actions that are being encouraged are tree planting, a focus on hedgerows, and – alarmingly – land sparing. “We’re really trying to push the idea that farming and nature are not in competition with each other, and that there should be priority given to funding ways of farming which are good for nature rather than taking land out of production,” says Tara, “But that message is something we’re really struggling to get through.”

She hasn’t given up all hope though: “It’s worth saying – it’s better than what we had! I think it will encourage SOME people to make SOME transitions towards better farming. And that’s good. But it’s just very unambitious.”

In their full response to the Bill, the LWA has called for greater ambition and imagination; better support for small scale and crofts; a prioritised transition to agroecology with a focus on agroforestry; the specific inclusion of horticulture; and support for new entrants, who are “often much more interested in farming in a sustainable, agroecological way.”

Wales

Speaking to the Landworkers Alliance Cymru, policy coordinator Holly Tomlinson tells us that the average farm size in Wales is 48ha, with 55% of farms below 20ha. Yet, in new policy, the area based payment system with a minimum threshold of 5ha remains. The CAP will be replaced by a Sustainable Farming Scheme and Agriculture Bill, due to be implemented in 2025, and aiming to synthesise all information into one set of national standards to unburden farmers.

New policy in Wales integrates food and environment to a greater extent than English legislation. The Welsh government tends towards this holistic approach – for example One Planet Development and the Well-being of Future Generations Act – but implementation and monitoring can be lacking. This is likely due to underfunding, where the devolved nations simply have less resources than Westminster.

Holly Tomlinson has concerns. The proposals for minimum sustainability requirements in Wales aren’t strong as they stand, she says; for example, allowing the use of significant levels of uncomposted manure, artificial fertilisers and pesticides – “You have to report on it but you don’t have to change anything” – and lacking regulation around stocking densities.

She sees more potential in the proposed payments available for collaborative farming projects, which encourage agroecological practices including stocking rare livestock breeds, supporting local supply chains, public access and community engagement. Many Landworkers Alliance members could benefit, she says – if the 5ha barrier was lifted

Holly has been involved in a pilot that aims to demonstrate a viable alternative whilst tackling another Welsh agricultural issue – a lack of local produce.

The country’s agricultural land usage is dominated by grassland, so fruit and vegetable imports are significant. National organisations including Food Sense Wales, the Sustainable Food Places Network and Social Farms and Gardens are campaigning for specific support in new policy for horticulture, and new entrants to the sector in particular.

In the Welsh Veg for Primary Schools in Wales project, Holly’s farm, Blas Gwent, was funded by a wholesaler to supply courgettes to local schools, modelling a short supply chain system that supported local, sustainable vegetable production. “It supports production without incentivising over-production,” says Holly, “in an alternative way that doesn’t depend on how much land you have. Actually paying for the food that is needed for the schools anyway, rather than how many hectares of land a farm has.”

The pilot was a success and could pave the way for a wider roll-out of similar schemes. “It’s an amazing example of some positive stuff happening in the right direction,” says Holly, but it will need some long-term strategic thinking: “The challenge is that imported veg from Holland is much cheaper, so there needs to be a fund to bridge that gap.”

More on Post-Brexit Farm Policy

Post-Brexit Farm Policy – Where Do England’s Smallholdings and Horticulture Sector Stand?

Brexit Bites – Farming in Britain after CAP

 

About Ursula Billington 27 Articles

Ursula Billington has a background in environmentalism, wellbeing and the arts. She studied Practical Sustainability in Bristol, gaining experience of agroecology, permaculture and sustainable living projects across the UK. She has since put her knowledge and enthusiasm into practice with roles at Oxfam, Netplants (EU Erasmus project) and the Sustainable Soils Alliance, an organisation focused on placing soil health at the centre of new UK agricultural policy. She is currently Climate & Sustainability editor at independent magazine and online newspaper, Bristol 24/7. She spends the rest of her time on the fiddle.