Defra report calls for focus on public goods rather than direct payments

A new report from Defra’s influential Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has said that the future of farming should focus on public goods and higher animal welfare, rather than direct payments.

The Committee, created to advise the government on its delivery of a 25-year environment plan, has said in its new publication that Brexit was a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a “coherent approach to farming, fisheries and environmental policy”.

Looking at the current system of farm support, it says that it disproportionately supports larger farms, while failing to meet the needs of smaller businesses in the sector – pointing to the fact that “25 per cent of farms capture nearly three-quarters of public subsidies.”

It states: “This in turn means that a large proportion of public funding goes to some of the richest farms in the country, while many smaller farms, including many that are vital elements of our environmental, landscape and rural community heritage, receive relatively little.”

Based upon these findings it has called for an overhaul of the way in which agriculture is publicly funded so that it is concentrated on the “provision of public goods and high animal welfare standards”.

In particular, it lists environmental improvement, biosecurity, poverty reduction and knowledge transfer as areas for support. It also believes that there is “excellent value for money to the taxpayer” from environmental improvements, as opposed to direct farm payments.

The government has already committed to maintaining the overall level of funding to agriculture through to 2022, but the report says that switching towards public funding of public goods could justify an increase in overall funding.

Commenting on the NCC recommendations, Charles Cowap, principal land management lecturer at Harper Adams University, said: “This report puts a toe into farming territory, but only to reaffirm a strong current of opinion – that farmers should only be paid for public goods.

“This may well turn out to be the appropriate way forward, but with new international trade arrangements and all their logistical implications coming sometime soon, my own view is that we have to retain more of an open mind on these questions at this stage.”