UK’s Post-Brexit Farm Subsidies Will Prioritize Carbon Sequestration

Throughout Brexit, many have wondered about the environmental implications of the UK leaving the European Union. When the split becomes official at the end of the month it will also mean a severing with Europe’s notorious farm subsidies.

As Science Mag reported, many researchers see this as a good thing as this week “the U.K. government proposed radical changes to £3 billion a year in agricultural spending that will focus the money on benefits to climate, ecosystems, and the public.” 

  • Under the bill, introduced to Parliament this week and expected to become law within a few months, farmers will be given subsidies not simply for cultivating land—the current EU system—but for delivering “public goods.”
  • These include sequestering carbon in trees or soil, enhancing habitat with pollinator-friendly flowers, and improving public access to the countryside.

The Rollout: Science Mag explained that “to ease the transition, direct subsidies will be phased out over 7 years beginning in 2021, and the new payments for environmental services will be tested in pilot projects.” Additionally, the UK’s food security will be regularly assessed by parliament to ensure that the transition goes smoothly for Britons.

The Sell: The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) says that the new subsidies will help support farmers after years of “inefficient and overly bureaucratic policy dictated to farmers by the EU.”

UK Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said the bill will “transform British farming, enabling a balance between food production and the environment which will safeguard our countryside and farming communities for the future.” Villiers added that the new subsidies are “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years.”

The Reaction: Euractiv reported that there is still concern in some quarters that the government has not set in law its promise that UK food standards will not be lowered in any post-Brexit deal with the US.

  • The bill also lacks concrete assurances to farmers that future trade deals will exclude imports of foods not produced to the same health, animal welfare and quality standards as required in the EU.
  • In a statement on the UK National Famers’ Union (NFU) website, NFU President Minette Batters said that “this bill is one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for over 70 years. However, farmers across the country will still want to see legislation underpinning government assurances that they won’t allow imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here.”

As ITV added, environmental groups have welcomed the proposed legislation to support farmers and tackle the nature and climate crises.

Why This Matters: Farm subsidies are one of the most political government programs both here and abroad. A report last year from the Food and Land Use Coalition called for the redirection of “perverse” payments into carbon sequestration if we want a shot at fighting climate change. On the other hand, farmers in the US certainly weren’t complaining about the $19 billion paid out to them in 2019.

In the US, almost all of the top 2020 presidential candidates have come out with a climate change plan that updates ag policy to bolster soil carbon and regenerative farming practices. In fact, Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out with an entire rural policy platform that ensures farming communities are part of the climate solution. So for those of us across the pond, watching how this new subsidy scheme unfolds in the UK will be a precursor of the challenges and opportunities that will arise once we have a president willing to implement similar policies here at home.

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