FARMING MINISTERS butted heads over future agricultural policy at Oxford’s Farming Conference, but Scotland's voice was absent from talks.

During the annual politics session at the three-day conference, agricultural ministers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland shared their vision for a future outwith the Common Agricultural Policy, yet The Scottish Farmer was told that due to personal circumstances, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon was unable to attend the virtual session.

Defra’s minister George Eustice defended his plans to phase out subsidies by 2027 as an ‘evolution’ not a ‘revolution’ and announced an increase in Countryside Stewardship Funding, whilst Northern Ireland’s minister Edwin Poots said he would not associate with trade deals which threaten his ‘environmental or social consciousness’ and Wales‘ Lesley Griffiths argued that any future policy must protect Welsh traditions.

Mr Eustice told delegates that he would be increasing Countryside Stewardship payments by 30% and that his department had removed some of the bureaucracy that he alleged was a feature under the EU scheme, urging farmers to sign up. He outlined plans to increase tree planting targets to 10,000 hectares per year and argued that there needs to be a degree of land use change but that it wouldn’t interfere with food security – referencing the government’s legal responsibility to review food security every three years.

“We envisage some land use change to deliver objectives on tree planting but also a profitable agriculture which is contributing to our food security. There are 9.3 million hectares of land in England so the change would only be happening on a relatively small area.”

He defended the government’s timeline to remove direct subsidies by 2027. “This was going to be an evolution not a revolution,” continued Mr Eustice. “This is a phase out of subsidies whilst simultaneously rolling out new policies. We are making the first initial reductions to BPS payments and ensuring all money released is ploughed back into a new scheme. The risk of slashing BPS too quickly was too great, we wanted to roll out our scheme gradually rather than take the EU approach of a big bang revolution every seven years. We want to move away from this and learn from mistakes as we go and improve our schemes year on year.”

He went on to argue that farm profitability has been generally in a strong position since 2016 which he believed would offset reductions made in BPS cuts.

“Commodity prices have risen despite fears of leaving the EU being disastrous for example, for the lamb sector. Prices are good with beef and arable – gross margins per hectare up 30% for most cereals. Generally speaking, the farming sector is in a good financial position which should more than offset reductions made in BPS cuts.”

Northern Ireland’s Minister Poots raised his concerns with the UK’s approach to signing new trade deals: “We welcome new trade deals on the one hand, but they will have an impact on agricultural food production here,” he said. “Food producing countries may not have the same environmental consciousness as we have in the UK and as a result, we could import cheaper product from other parts of the world produced in less environmentally friendly ways. That is not a policy I want to engage with or be associated with,” he stressed. “In terms of our social conscience, we want to produce food in environmentally friendly ways and ensure local communities are sustained – farming is the heartbeat within rural communities.”

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Mr Poots went on to outline his plans to encourage more farmers to expand into renewable energy in order to ‘farm smarter’: “Instead of just being seen as producers of meat or dairy we need to look at that animal as a producer of renewable energy. Methane needs to be captured and reused – we should grow anaerobic digestion, take steps to use using bio methane in our machinery, place solar panels on our farm buildings. What we are proposing in terms of renewable energy will provide income streams for farming whilst removing phosphates, carbon and ammonia from agricultural production and moving into the energy sector as a key step forward.”

Welsh farming minister Lesley Griffiths told delegates that they will be asking farmers to go further to create a more sustainable agricultural sector in Wales and that they will provide support though the sustainable farming scheme to target outcomes in relation to environmental issues.

“At the moment, farmers are not currently rewarded for clean air, clean water and flood mitigation, so that’s what we’ll be looking at as part of our sustainable farming scheme.”

However, she added that any future policy would be mindful of protecting Welsh language and customs: “It is hugely important that we protect the Welsh language and the farming community use it more than any other community. Future policy must strike a balance with maintaining our rich cultural heritage.”