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#FarmSubsidies: Payment to billionaire prince sparks anger

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methode-times-prod-web-bin-c399ceb2-8617-11e6-9270-cf26736cb244Taxpayers are paying more than £400,000 a year to subsidize a farm where a billionaire Saudi prince breeds racehorses, writes Roger Harrabin.

The Newmarket farm of Khalid Abdullah al Saud (pictured, right) - owner of the legendary horse Frankel - is among the top 100 recipients of EU farm grants in the UK.

The system's critics say Brexit will let the UK redirect £3bn in subsidies towards protecting the environment.

A spokesman for the prince declined to comment.

Farm subsidies swallow a huge chunk of the EU's budget. They were started after World War Two to stimulate production, but led to food mountains that had to be dumped.

A compromised reform process - the so-called "greening" of the Common Agricultural Policy - resulted in farmers mostly being paid depending on how much land they own.

The UK's top beneficiaries include estates owned partly or wholly by the Queen (£557,706.52); Lord Iveagh (£915,709.97); the Duke of Westminster (£427,433.96), the Duke of Northumberland (£475,030.70 ) the Mormons (£785,058.94) - and many wealthy business people.

Asked if the Queen thought it appropriate to receive taxpayers' subsidy based on the size of her land holding, a spokesman for the Palace said: "Subsidies are open to all farmers, and are received on the Queen's private estate. We would not comment beyond the detail that is already in the public domain."

A spokesman for the Duke of Westminster also declined the question, but said the farm produced quality food while taking the environment very seriously.

In EU-wide rankings, the UK scores highly on the transparency of information about who receives what, although the identity of some landowners on the list is concealed through offshore trusts.

The big conservation organizations Natural England (£970,580.50), the National Trust (£2,666,880.26) and the RSPB (£2,002,859.51) are among the top recipients

They also get extra public money under a parallel grant designed to encourage wildlife. The latter two argue for reform of the subsidies.

A campaign for reform is being launched by Greenpeace, which does not normally focus on farming, but says Brexit demands a re-examination of many policies.

The group said it was an "outrage" that subsidies were given to those such as Khalid Abdullah al Saud, who owns Juddmonte Limited farms. His stallion Frankel is said to be worth over £100m for breeding.

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr told BBC News: "The subsidy system is utterly broken. We need public money spent on farming to be offering demonstrable public benefits."

The Taxpayers' Alliance added: "Farmers should be put on notice. Taxpayers shouldn't be handing out what are effectively land subsidies, often to extremely wealthy individuals."

Top of Defra's 2015 payments list is Aberdeenshire farmer Frank Smart, whose business netted grants of £2,963,732.77.

He told BBC News: "I don't want to discuss any part of my business with the media, thank you."

Mr Smart would not comment on complaints that he has been "slipper farming" - a technique in which farmers buy up land principally for the grants attached to it. The practice is not illegal but it has been heavily criticised.

One MP, the Conservative Richard Drax, is in the top 100 beneficiaries. His jointly-owned farm received £351,752.29.

Past EU attempts to radically reform the subsidies have been blocked by Europe's farmers.

Two ministers in the government's environment department, Defra, receive farm subsidies.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble declares an interest as a partner in CM Robarts & Son, (SIC) which nets £45,479.19 in direct payments.

George Eustice is a director of a Cornish farm receiving £2,313.

A Defra spokesman said Mr Eustice and Lord Gardiner had properly declared potential conflicts of interest and both had been cleared for discussions on the future of farm grants.

The spokesman said that in the context of Brexit, all policies were being re-examined, adding: "The secretary of state has underlined the need for continuity for farmers and is looking forward to working with industry, rural communities and the wider public to shape our plans for food, farming and the environment outside the EU."

In the Tory leadership contest, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom promised farmers that she would continue farm subsidies.

The Treasury has already guaranteed direct payments for land ownership until 2020, although to the dismay of conservation groups has not committed to continue funding wildlife protection on farms.

The Tenant Farmers' Association wants to keep the £3bn total subsidies but split the cash between enhancing the environment, creating infrastructure to develop farm businesses, and public funding to promote British food.

The Country Landowners Association seems to think reform is inevitable.

"Brexit has given us the opportunity to develop a new food, farming and environmental policy which can deliver even greater benefits for the natural world," its spokesman Christopher Price said.

The farmers' union, the NFU, did not comment when asked if it accepted reform of the grants system was now inevitable.

Many environment groups believe reform of the labyrinthine grants system is beyond the capacity of Defra, which has lost many staff in recent savings. They want a broadly based commission to outline how much the government needs to spend on farming to meet the objectives of its 25-year plan to protect the environment.

Agriculture

A greener, fairer, and more robust EU farm policy

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MEPs want to make the EU farm policy more sustainable and resilient to continue to deliver food security across the EU ©AdobeStock/Vadim 

The EU’s future farm policy should be more flexible, sustainable, and crisis-resilient, so that farmers can continue to deliver food security across the EU. MEPs on Friday (23 October) adopted their position on the post-2022 EU farm policy reform. The EP negotiating team is now ready to start talks with EU ministers.

Moving towards a performance-based policy

MEPs endorsed a policy shift that should better tailor the EU’s farm policy to the needs of individual member states but they insist on maintaining a level playing field across the Union. National governments should draft strategic plans, which the Commission will endorse, specifying how they intend to implement EU objectives on the ground. The Commission would be checking their performance, not only their compliance with EU rules.

Promoting better environmental performance of EU farms

The objectives of strategic plans shall be pursued in line with the Paris Agreement, MEPs say.

Parliament strengthened mandatory climate and environmentally-friendly practices, the so-called conditionality, that each farmer must apply to get direct support. On top of that, MEPs want to dedicate at least 35% of the rural development budget to all types of environmental and climate-related measures. At least 30% of the direct payments budget should go to eco-schemes, which would be voluntary but could increase farmers’ income.

MEPs insist on setting up farm advisory services in every member state and allocating at least 30% of their EU-sponsored funding to help farmers fight climate change, manage natural resources sustainably, and protect biodiversity. They also call on member states to encourage farmers to dedicate 10% of their land to landscaping that is beneficial to biodiversity, such as hedges, non-productive trees, and ponds.

Reducing payments to bigger farms, supporting small and young farmers

MEPs voted to progressively reduce annual direct payments to farmers above €60 000 and cap them at €100 000. However, farmers could be allowed to deduct 50% of agriculture-related salaries from the total amount before reduction. At least 6% of national direct payments should be used to support small and medium-sized farms but if more than 12% is used, the capping should become voluntary, MEPs say.

EU states could use at least 4% of their direct payments budgets to support young farmers. Further support could be granted from the rural development funding where young farmers’ investments could be prioritized, MEPs say.

Parliament stresses that EU subsidies should be reserved only for those who engage in at least a minimum level of agricultural activity. Those who operate airports, railway services, waterworks, real estate services, permanent sports and recreational grounds should be automatically excluded.

Veggie burgers and tofu steaks: No change in labelling plant-based products

MEPs rejected all proposals to reserve meat-related names for products containing meat. Nothing will change for plant-based products and the names they currently use when being sold.

Helping farmers deal with risks and crises

Parliament pushed for further measures to help farmers cope with risks and potential future crises. It wants the market to be more transparent, an intervention strategy for all agricultural products, and practices aiming for higher environmental, animal health, or animal welfare standards to be exempt from competition rules. They also want to turn the crisis reserve, helping farmers with price or market instability, from an ad-hoc instrument to a permanent one with a proper budget.

Higher sanctions for repeated breaches and EU complaints mechanism

Parliament wants to increase sanctions for those who repeatedly fail to comply with EU requirements (e.g. on the environment and animal welfare). This should cost farmers 10% of their entitlements (up from today’s 5%).

MEPs also want an ad-hoc EU complaints mechanism to be set up. This would cater to farmers and rural beneficiaries who are treated unfairly or disadvantageously with regard to EU subsidies, if their national government fails to deal with their complaint.

Results of the vote and more information

The strategic plans regulation was approved by 425 votes in favour to 212 against, with 51 abstentions.

The regulation on common market organization was approved by 463 votes in favour to 133 against, with 92 abstentions.

The regulation on financing, management and monitoring of the CAP was approved by 434 votes in favour to 185 against, with 69 abstentions.

More information about the approved texts is available in the background note.

Statements by the Chair of the Agriculture Committee and the three rapporteurs are available here.

Background

The last reform of the EU farm policy, established in 1962, dates back to 2013.

Current CAP rules expire on 31 December 2020. They should be replaced by transitional rules until the ongoing CAP reform is agreed and approved by the Parliament and Council.

The CAP accounts for 34.5% of the 2020 EU budget (€58.12 billion). Around 70% of the CAP budget supports the income of six to seven million EU farms.

More information

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Agriculture

Commission welcomes Council agreement on future Common Agricultural Policy

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On 20 October, the Council agreed on its negotiating position, the so-called general approach, on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals. The Commission welcomes this agreement, a decisive step towards entering the negotiation phase with the co-legislators.

Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said: “I welcome the progress made and the general approach on the Common Agricultural Policy reached over the night. This is an important step for our farmers and our farming community. I am grateful for member states' constructive cooperation and I trust this agreement will help ensure that European agriculture can continue to provide economic, environmental and social benefits for our farmers and citizens in future.”

The European Parliament is also voting on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals during the Plenary session, with voting sessions scheduled until today (23 October). Once the European Parliament agrees on a position for all three CAP reports, the co-legislators will be able to enter into the negotiation phase, with a view to reach an overall agreement.

The Commission presented its CAP reform proposals in June 2018, aiming at a more flexible, performance and results-based approach, while setting higher environmental and climate action ambitions. Following the adoption of the Farm to fork and biodiversity strategies, the Commission presented the CAP reform's compatibility with the Green Deal's ambition.

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Agriculture

Commission organizes first Farm to Fork 2020 conference 

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On 15 October European Green Deal Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, together with  Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski opened the Farm to Fork 2020 conference - Building sustainable food systems together. The virtual conference will also take place today (16 October), it being World Food Day. This conference is the first in what will be an annual gathering of European stakeholders willing to engage and help shape the EU's path towards sustainable food systems.

More than 1,000 stakeholders across the food value chain, public authorities, international and civil society organizations, as well as members of the public have registered to join the debate and contribute to the implementation of the Farm to Fork Strategy, adopted earlier this year. At the heart of the European Green Deal, the strategy aims at a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system. The event will also provide a forum for discussion on the challenges and opportunities linked to the transition to sustainable food systems, as well as on possible further areas of intervention The whole event is accessible via web streaming.

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