By Tom Kuehnel, Campaigner, The Vegan Society
Last Tuesday brought news of 36 Tory MPs calling on the government to shift farming subsidies towards environmental protections post-Brexit. Echoing these sentiments, recent surveys have found that the British public feel the same. Whether or not you agree, it is clear that Brexit provides us with a real chance to redesign a domestic agricultural policy which works for Britain.
The redirection of subsidies away from environmentally destructive farming practices towards those which provide a public good, like the tackling of climate change, would clearly be a positive step in the right direction.
The problems with Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have been well documented. We have heard stories of how giant corporations and wealthy landowners rake in millions each year merely for owning land. It isn’t perfect.
The public are understandably discouraged with the system. They don’t want to see their taxes being used to line the pockets of already wealthy landowners, or for the government to use taxpayer’s money to prop up failing farming industries.
I don’t purport to know all the answers. There clearly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that will assuage this complex and emotive issue of who and what should be afforded support in a post-Brexit economy. There will be intense disagreements from all sides of the debate in what will surely be a long and drawn out process.
Industries like dairy, in which supply far outstrips demand with dairy farmers receiving around a third of their income through CAP subsidies to stabilise market volatility, cannot continue to be supported unconditionally while others are left to market forces.
The same principle applies to uplands sheep farming in Wales, which has become unprofitable not least because the price of wool has fallen dramatically. Tradition is no reason to continue to do something.
Whether we take the advice of prominent environmental journalist George Monbiot and rewild the uplands, or inject seed money to stimulate a British pulses market, farmers need to be offered an alternative by the government. This money needs to be set aside to research and incentivise such a transition sooner rather than later.
Every one of us in Britain relies on the hard work of farmers to put food on our plates. We want to safeguard the future of farmers in a world in which people are becoming more mindful and making choices based on the environmental impact of their food.
Even the meat and dairy industry are taking notice of the growing market share of meat and dairy analogues. Farmers should be encouraged to embrace this growing market, and not see it is a threat to their livelihoods.
One way forward could be to incentivise plant-protein crops for human consumption, increasing self-sufficiency in the food chain and therefore increasing food security. This way we can address the inherent inefficiencies of feeding human edible crops to livestock, often grown in other parts of the world, by cutting out the middle animal.
This is the very basis of The Vegan Society’s Grow Green campaign. In this climate change era, we need to make sure that a domestic agricultural policy is ahead of the curve by leading us on a path towards a low carbon future. With livestock contributing between 14-18% of global GHG emissions - more than the transport sector - and with climate change targets to meet, proposals to transition to a sustainable plant-centred agriculture cannot afford to be dismissed.
Plant-protein crops are well suited to the British climate. Pulses in particular have an extensive history of success. These crops also have additional benefits to the environment, being natural nitrogen-fixers requiring less fertiliser usage. Among other benefits, they also maintain good soil health, and reduce flood risk and soil erosion because of their complex root structures.
It’s great that so many Conservative MPs have spoken about the important issue of shifting subsidies towards supporting public goods. But it’s crucial that we quickly move beyond mere sentiments, and make sure that a domestic agricultural policy post-Brexit supports a transition to a more sustainable farming future, in all senses of the word.