The National Farmers' Union Secures So Much Public Cash Yet Gives Nothing Back
Is there any organisation as selfish, grasping and antisocial as the National Farmers' Union? Is there any organisation, except the banks, that secures so much public money for its members while offering so little in return?
Here are some of the positions the NFU has taken over the past few months:
It demanded the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Farm workers are often extremely vulnerable, with low pay, long hours, dangerous working conditions and few opportunities for collective bargaining. The board offered them some defence against the worst forms of exploitation. The NFU, many of whose members receive hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money every year, has lobbied long and hard for the board to be abolished. With the help of its friends in this government it has won, and the AWB will go in October.
At the same time, it fought to ensure that there would be no cap on the amount of taxpayers' money a single farmer could receive. The European Commission had proposed a cap of €300,000 a year. But even this is not enough for the multi-millionaires scooping up public funds. The more land you own or rent, the more money you receive: some of these people take millions a year from taxpayers. The union boasts of how hard it fought to ensure that subsidies remain uncapped. With the help of the landed mafia – otherwise known as the government of the United Kingdom – its wish was granted.
The National Farmers' Union has lamented the fact that young people trying to make a start in farming will receive more public funds. The EU has decided that governments will have to shift 2% of the money they currently dole out to those who own or rent farmland into a scheme for "new entrant young farmers". The NFU lists this as one of the oppressive measures representing a "bad deal" for farmers.
Nothing could better reinforce the suspicion, which I have often heard voiced by small farmers, that the NFU defends the interests of big, rich incumbents over small, struggling and hopeful farmers. Perhaps this is unsurprising, in view of who runs it. The president, Peter Kendall, is an arable baron who, with his brother, owns a 620-hectare farm in Bedfordshire, and rents land on four neighbouring farms.
The vice-president, Meurig Raymond, has a 1,300 hectare farm on prime land in Pembrokeshire, also owned with his brother. Given that farmers in this country receive an average of £197 a hectare in direct payments (and often a good deal more in public subsidies of other kinds), this suggests that he might take at least £250,000 a year from the taxpayer. How dare these people lament a transfer of 2% of this money to young people trying to break into farming?
Under the initial headline (since changed) of "NFU will continue fight on road safety rules", this week it issued a press release showing how it has "worked hard" to exempt tractors and trailers from an annual road safety test. Remember that, next time someone is killed because a tractor's brakes fail.
But this is only the start of it. Last month the National Farmers' Union and its counterparts in other European countries succeeded in demolishing attempts to green the Common Agricultural Policy: the scheme through which more than €50bn a year of our money is handed to landowners.
The stated purpose of the negotiations that came to an end last month – and which will determine farm policy for the next seven years – was to make farming more compatible with protecting wildlife, water supplies, soil and carbon stocks. After being comprehensively gutted through lobbying by farmers' organisations, the new Common Agricultural Policy is even worse than the last one.
The landowners' lobbyists demanded something for nothing – and, by and large, they got it. We will continue, in this age of austerity, to slosh vast sums of public money into the arms of millionaires. In return they will continue to trash the living planet.
The NFU demanded there should be no transfer of funds from the almost unconditional payments (Pillar 1 of the Common Agricultural Policy) that they receive for owning or renting land into Pillar 2. Pillar 2 agri-environment payments are supposed to be conditional on changes in the way that farmers treat the land and its wildlife.
The NFU insisted on "automatic entitlement" to money for protecting the environment, whether or not they are actually protecting the environment. It demanded that farmers should be allowed to opt out of any schemes for improving their destructive practices. It fought against the proposal (called ecological focus areas) to devote some land on every farm to wildlife. It also announced that it would "seek to limit any penalties arising from a failure to implement the greening requirements as much as possible". In other words, the NFU pressed for as few restrictions on how its members collect taxpayers' money as it could get – and then to be able to break those restrictions with impunity. For the most part, it won.
The ecological focus areas originally envisaged were cut from 10% of farmland to 5%. Worse still, the rules have been watered down so far that they are now almost meaningless. The new regulations allow these areas – supposedly set aside for wildlife – to be intensively farmed.
While governments can transfer some money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2, the measure remains voluntary. Already the NFU has been lobbying the Westminster government not to do it (so far the government has been holding out, but I wonder whether this will last).
Overall, the amount of money for Pillar 2 has been cut, and environmental schemes will now be seriously short of funds: a remarkable outcome when so much free money continues to be given to farmers.
Enforcement of the conditions attached to Pillar 1 payments will be so weak that farmers will have to break the rules for several years in a row to lose any money, and even then the most that can be docked – however destructive they have been – is 37.5% of what we're paying them.
The condition that farmers must abide by the birds directive if they want this money has been dropped. Now they can kill protected species without jeopardising their payments. Just as outrageously, they have no need to comply with either the water or the pesticides directives to qualify for public money. Nor do they need to protect carbon-rich soils to receive Pillar 1 payments.
True to form, having obtained almost all the destructive, regressive, lucrative measures it demanded, the NFU then complained bitterly about the outcome of the negotiations. This seems to be the tactic: whatever you get, always demand more. While income support for the very poor has been cut, the millionaire landowners keep raking in public money. Yet they also keep whinging. With the possible exception of the financial sector, nowhere will you encounter such a nest of ungrateful parasites.
Even some of the measures that have survived are both questionable and useless without enforcement. Some of the "greening" policies can actually do more harm than good.
For example, in the Peak District, grouse estates often receive agri-environment money because they maintain heather moorland. (Heather colonises deforested land and depleted soils, but for some reason we fetishise it in this country.) In many cases they get the money to carry on doing what they were doing anyway – maintaining habitats that maximise the populations of red grouse (while minimising the populations of many other species). The "green" payments are free money, which some of these estates use to employ extra gamekeepers, who then kill the hen harriers and other wild animals. A great outcome for the natural world.
In both Wales and the Lake District I've heard how keeping sheep in unsuitable places – slopes subject to high levels of erosion, where grazing is extremely damaging to water retention and wildlife – is sustained only as a result of the extra money the farmers there receive from Pillar 2 payments. Another splendid result for nature.
In fact, the less suitable for farming an area is, the more money you receive for farming there. Under the new rules, you can now receive an extra payment of €450 a hectare for keeping livestock (which mostly means sheep) on mountains. Goodbye watersheds, goodbye soil, goodbye wildlife.
And, in many places, enforcement is almost a dead letter. Farmers are paid extra if they promise to keep their sheep out of the woods. But the sheep are still in the woods, wiping out the ground flora, ensuring that nothing survives except the old trees, which are dying without being replaced. Grouse moors are paid to burn the heather less frequently. But some of them burn just as often as before and still get their money.
Even the current pathetic level of enforcement is too much for the welfare kings. Peter Kendall, president of the NFU, has pledged: "I will also continue to fight for more proportionate penalties and risk-based inspections across the CAP." Which is the code lobbyists now use for as little monitoring and enforcement as they can get away with.
When I spoke to the NFU about these issues, its spokesperson told me:
"We're not behind a campaign for destruction of the greening of the Common Agricultural Policy. We want a fair deal for English and Welsh farmers … We're looking to make some of the agreements more practical and simple to administer. We were always concerned at the level of ecological focus areas. We sought to have them reduced. But we also recognise that there should be smaller areas of land which are better managed, rather than whole fields set aside … What we were asking for is English farmers to be treated fairly."
All over Europe, essential public services are being cut. All over Europe, the poor are being hammered by the loss of the benefits they need to sustain even the most basic quality of life. But the millionaire landowners continue to reel it in, while still destroying biodiversity, polluting water courses, squandering irrigation water, wiping out pollinators, killing birds of prey and accelerating climate change. Are there not better ways of spending public money?
• This article was amended on 8th July 2013. The original stated that farmers receive "about £300 a hectare in direct payments" meaning that Meurig Raymond's 1300 hectare farm would attract at least £390,000 annually. Defra responded to a question about the per hectare figure after the article had been submitted. The correct figure is £197 a hectare. This has been corrected.