CAP: Agric Fundamentalists v Enviro Fundamentalists – some inconvenient points

Decision week for Defra Secretary Owen Paterson.  He is due to announce the ‘modulation’ rate for England by the end of the week.  Will it be 9% as the NFU wants, or 15% as the RSPB demands?  Modulation is EU-speak for the amount of farming support that is diverted (modulated) into more general rural development and environmental schemes.  So the more money that is modulated, the less the direct farm payments through the Basic Farm Payment which will soon replace the Single Farm Payment.  The BBC provides some of the background here.

Last weekend saw a crescendo of lobbying on the issue, with the RSPB taking out full page national newspaper advertisements and the NFU writing to all MPs.  Some of the mood of the debate is caught in Mark Avery’s Sunday blog: all households will have to pay £400 to support farmers; this is nothing more than a payment for owning land and farming it (whither tenant farmers?).  On the other hand the NFU whinges that German farmers are only subject to modulation rates of 4.5%, French farmers 3% and the proposed Scottish rate is 9.5%.  This will hurt competitiveness, says the NFU, and disadvantage English farmers.

The environment lobby makes much of the ‘value’ that we get for CAP payments.  The more money that goes to Pillar II (EU-speak for the budget that pays for environmental and social goodies), the better. But farmers prefer Pillar I (EU-speak for the budget that pays for direct farm support payments) because that relates directly to the land they farm and how they farm it – and this can be defended strongly on grounds of food security (will you starve or me?).

But of course we are dealing with public policy here, and the reality is more complex that the advocates of Pillar I and II would like us to accept.  The new direct farm payments come with more environmental strings attached – crop diversification and ecological focus areas for example.  And more of the money is moved uphill – where it is desperately needed because much of upland farming is economically marginal at best – at the (moderate) expense of lowland areas.  Whatever Pillar II funding we are left with, will be far more focussed than previously – a better deal on the 35% of rural land which will benefit compared with the previous 70%?  Perhaps so if you are in the lucky areas; perhaps not otherwise – although tougher conditions on the Pillar I funding may make up the difference in some lowland areas.

The RSPB and others have set out their case for the ‘value’ we receive in return for our £400 per household.  This is a compelling and attractive case, immediately attractive to anybody who pays tax.  Given the propensity of Avery and others to dismiss the CAP payments as a mere subsidy on land ownership and farming, I have been pondering what we do get for the money we spend on farm support.

This is an incredibly complex question once you factor in food security and social justice.  To take some dairy figures, our consumption of milk products works out as follows:

Taking our daily consumption of fresh milk, butter, yogurt, cream, dairy desserts we on average consume about 4 litres of raw milk a week.  That’s a little over 200 litres a year.  With an average dairy cow now producing 7,327 litres a year, that means each cow is supporting 36 people.  This typical cow requires 0.5 ha  of land a year, and lives in an average herd of 125 cows.  So the average herd is providing dairy produce for 4,500 people.  At a direct CAP Single Farm payment cost of just over £200/ha, this equates to a cost per consumer supported with dairy products of just under £3.00/year (1).  Doesn’t seem much, but let’s cut the CAP farming support payments altogether.   What happens next?

There is little doubt that the main buyers of milk from farmers have an excellent idea of the costs of production – including the effects of farming subsidies – and set their prices accordingly.   Ergo – exit CAP, enter higher payments from the main buyers.  Despite the hyperbole to the contrary, the main farm produce buyers have no interest in the financial failure of their principal suppliers.  So prices are adjusted accordingly to make it worthwhile – but only just so for better than average producers – to continue to supply milk.  In compensation retail prices increase – for everybody.

So if you are hard up, milk has just gone up and you won’t save much tax if you weren’t paying any or much tax anyway.  But if you are better off milk, yogurt, cheese etc has also gone up, but the CAP isn’t costing you so much through your tax bill.  That’s to say that another element of redistribute taxation has been lost.

Meanwhile at lower rates of modulation fewer farmers are encouraged (forced?) to look at the financial effiency of their operation.  At the recent LEAF conference, Martin Wilksinson (HSBC Head of Agriculture) made the point that many farmers could more than make up their CAP losses with improved technical and financial effiency.  This is one of the real challenges to the farming industry: to move more farmers to the standards of the best.  England was the first region in the UK to move to Single Farm Payments based on the same average payment, away from a payment based on historic payments.  Wales and Scotland have been slower to move in this direction, and there seems a compelling case for England being better prepared for this round of CAP reform as a result.  One fear for the environmental lobby might be the real danger that some of the best lowland farmers may move away from CAP support altogether, joining those sections of the farming industry which have never had it anyway (eg pigs and poultry).

Meanwhile farmers need to promote the value we get from Pillar I payments by stressing any benefits they provide to the rest of the country as consumers and taxpayers.  For example, how many people is your farm feeding?  And at what cost in public support?  Will Santa be coming early for the farming lobby or the environment lobby?

-oOo-

Footnote 1: These calculations were surprisingly hard to source.  The DairyCo website provides daily consumption figures, and the average herd size and milk yield are available from Defra statistics.  DairyCo also provides a diagram showing how the UK’s milk supply is utilised.  My approach was to take the daily consumption of the dairy products listed (a list which is not complete) and work out how much raw milk is needed for each product, eg about 20 litres for 1 kg of butter; 10 litres for 1 kg of cheese.  This ignores some of the complexities of dairy processing, for example milk from which cream has been separated may reappear as another milk product and so on.  Some arithmetic followed based around stocking rates (0.5 ha/cow), total production/consumption figures and lowland Single Farm Payment Rates per hectare in the last year or two.  In short, lots of assumptions; lots of scope for error – but if anybody can highlight any errors or better still existing sources of information like this I would be delighted to know.

 

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