“Deadweight costs” hamper agriculture, says report

The Institute of Economic Affairs has recently reported that Brussels has fallen victim to environmentalists’ lobbying and introduced unnecessary regulation for agriculture which has had little benefit for consumers and has ‘created deadweight costs’ through bureaucracy.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has recently reported that Brussels has fallen victim to environmentalists’ lobbying and introduced unnecessary regulation for agriculture which has had little benefit for consumers and has ‘created deadweight costs’ through bureaucracy.  This, added to the fact that farm subsidies have been increasingly tied to environmental requirements imposed on farmers, has led to increased costs for both consumers and taxpayers.  The Institute goes on to argue that consumers should be able to buy cheap food without the added costs associated with farmers having to protect the environment.

Even more concerning, the report goes on to say that, “One cause of the growth in regulation is the use of the precautionary principle. This is poorly defined. However, in general, it means that the benefit of the doubt is given to the protection against any possible harm at the expense of consumer, business or economic interests.  The result has been a drift towards overregulation and a jettisoning of rational principles of managing and taking into account risk.”

The precautionary principle actually says that lack of scientific evidence of damage should not be a barrier to adopting measures to protect the environment.  But rather than this being a barrier to development in the UK, I am struggling to think of an example where the precautionary approach has actually been adopted to protect fish or the water environment.  Certainly not on agriculture, where soil loss in particular has led to increased sedimentation and excessive levels of phosphate and other chemicals that our Riverfly Census is showing is having a devastating impact on invertebrate populations on many of our rivers.  This is one of the major reasons why only 17% of rivers are classified as ecologically good – yet the Institute seems happy for the trashing to continue and, presumably, even expand if it means the production of cheaper food.

I find this type of report a national disgrace, declares S&TC CEO Paul Knight.  It is delivered from a group of people seemingly ignorant of the consequences of allowing unregulated land management to destroy our rivers, and the many services they provide for communities, let alone the water ecology they support.  And they obviously have no idea of the costs associated with cleaning up rivers – for instance, dredging sediment that should never have been allowed to enter the watercourse in the first place, or water companies spending customers’ money on expensive phosphate strippers to remove a nutrient that should have stayed on the land.

Brexit has given us at least one advantage – we will have to adopt a new agricultural programme to take the place of CAP, which creates opportunity.  The bad news is that the current political thinking within Defra is for less regulation and red tape, which does not bode well for environmental protection.

We, along with colleagues in other fisheries and conservation groups, will be lobbying hard over the Brexit negotiations for farmers to be rewarded for adopting practices that protect river corridors and the terrestrial environment, and not just handed subsidies because they happen to own and farm land.  We are talking with farming groups at the moment and the vast majority seem totally on-side with that principle.  Most farmers are horrified when they realize the consequences of soil and nutrient loss into rivers, and are keen to find solutions that actually save them money as well as protecting watercourses.  There are plenty of win-wins – such as minimum or zero tillage – that they can adopt, as shown by the excellent work done by our colleagues at GWCT at their experimental farm at Loddington.

What we cannot allow is for the ignorance of outfits like the Institute of Economic Affairs to use the excuse of Brexit to allow even greater degradation of our rivers and, therefore, invertebrates and wild fish species.  Rather, we must make it a priority to put in place a new agricultural policy that has benefits for both wider-thinking land managers and the environment upon which we all ultimately depend.