There is a raging debate in the UK about whether and how UK farmers should be protected from foreign competition in the execution of its trade policy. It threatens to divide the Conservative Party between their classical free traders and those whose constituencies include farmers and larger landowners.
Yet there is a solution here where the UK can both protect farmers and execute a trade policy which allows them to be competitive on global markets. To do so means asking what it is we should be protecting them from – and we should, in answering that question, come up with a set of holistic solutions.
The Department for International Trade’s newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission, on which I sit, is an excellent opportunity for constructive engagement to solve these issues and find common ground among stakeholders.
What should farmers be protected from?
The first question to ask is whether British farmers are trading on a level playing field now. The answer is that they are not. There are enormous subsidies and distortions in the EU-27, especially in major agricultural exporters into the UK such as France. Indeed, while British beef and lamb farmers do not receive any production subsidies (absent two very small programmes for crofters in Scotland amounting to £39m), French farmers benefit from €1bn of voluntary coupled support (a production subsidy). This disparity affects British farmers, not only as they produce for the home market, but also as they export in the EU and all over the world. We do need to come up with mechanisms which allow farmers to gain a measure of protection from these practices.