There is great debate in rural areas about the continuance of current farming subsidies after Brexit and their nature. In some ways, however, this is akin to looking through a telescope from the wrong end. Leaving the Customs Union and lowering the prices of food, clothing and industrial materials benefits all consumers, particularly the most disadvantaged, many of whom live in rural areas. Professor Patrick Minford has forecast a 10% fall in food prices, saving £305 per household per annum, or some £8.2 billion overall. That, therefore, should be the key priority.
Happily, leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is now Government policy, and we have seen the willingness of countries across the world – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the United States – to enter into free-trade agreements with us after Brexit. We are thus well placed to prosper and, even in the absence of any deal with the EU, must continue to recognise that no deal on trade is far better than a deal which ties the UK into the European regulatory framework and so takes opportunities off the table.
We will, for example, be able to remove the absurd tariffs on foods which we produce little of ourselves – representing a 14% saving on bananas, 8.8% on melons and 20.5% on tomatoes, for example. There is no reason that we should continue to ask consumers to subsidise European farmers when equally good products exist outside.
Our post-Brexit approach to agriculture must be global in its outlook and must, correspondingly, move away from subsidies and protectionism. It is vital to recognise at the same time, however, that for all the benefits to all consumers, such a change may create potential problems for the much smaller proportion of people in the agricultural sector which must be addressed.
I am confident that food producing areas have nothing to fear from global free trade. British farmers can compete on the world stage, breaking into markets presently denied them. We can learn the clear lessons from countries like Australia and New Zealand, who moved away from subsidies in the 1980s, and must free producers to embrace the most advanced and most effective technologies to boost their productivity.
There are, however, certain areas of the rural economy which could not survive by food production alone, and these we should continue to support generously for the enormous public good which they do in maintaining and nurturing the environment, on which sits a £30 billion annual tourism industry.
To read Owen’s speech in full, click here.