The Welsh countryside can flourish now that we are free of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, and yet the Welsh Labour Government appears to be on a course to miss that opportunity – with its obsession with negativity around Brexit, and its stubborn refusal to abandon plans to designate an all-Wales ‘Nitrate Vulnerable Zone’, writes Janet Finch-Saunders MS.
That’s why the Welsh Parliamentary elections in May are so important, and why the Welsh Conservatives will be unveiling a raft of positive measures to unlock the potential of agriculture in Wales.
Let’s be clear, 22 years of Welsh Labour rule has been hugely damaging for our farmers and rural communities, but they could be about to get a lot worse.
Not only have Labour failed to tackle Bovine TB, and to grasp the opportunities on climate change and air quality, the biggest threat to the future for Welsh farming is the Welsh Labour Government’s policy on NVZs – a law that will tarnish the standing of our industry, by painting our custodians of the countryside as a pollution time bomb.
I want to cut pollution and support the environment. The farming community does too. But designating the whole of Wales as an NVZ – making the zone 40 times larger – is a lazy decision taken by a government that doesn’t understand the impact of its decisions.
There is absolutely no doubt that this will cause long term damage to farming in Wales, threatening a key part of our heritage, putting jobs and livelihoods at risk, and – ultimately – raising food prices at the till.
Put simply, this policy is a ‘copy & paste’ of old EU regulations, which have demonstrably failed to improve water quality. Instead, the focus should be on supporting farms that need to reduce their agricultural waste.
Welsh Conservatives would immediately revoke this policy.
The recent Welsh Government White Paper was an opportunity to turbo-charge rural Wales, but it was devoid of ambition.
Coupled with the relentlessly negative language of the Rural Affairs Minister, this government now risks undermining our ability to capitalise on the opportunities that Brexit gives us to develop ‘made-in-Wales’ solutions.
Instead of talking the industry down, we should be positive about the future.
The conversations around Brexit were divisive and passionate, understandably so, because the ideological stakes were so high – but those arguments have now been settled, and despite the voices of doom and gloom the reality thus far has been very different.
Most farmers that I know and speak to just want to get on with it. The farming sector is resourceful and innovative by nature, and they need to be supported, with policies that can help them to unleash their potential.
These are exciting times, after all. There are record prices for lamb (nearly £3 per kilo live weight) and beef (£3.80+ per kilo dead weight), and recent surveys suggesting that most shoppers intend to support the industry this year by buying more homegrown produce.
What we need is a Welsh Government with the ambition to capitalise on these opportunities.
In the last 30 years, many of which have coincided with an era of Labour-rule under devolution, our self-sufficiency in terms of food production has fallen significantly. In the early 90s it stood at 75 per cent, we are now unfortunately just under 60 per cent.
And the era of devolution has brought with it the loss of much of Wales’ processing capacity – especially in the dairy industry and abattoirs. So much so, that we are losing much of the added value and potential for economic capacity to other parts of the UK.
As Welsh Conservatives, we want a vibrant industry driven by food security.
We will develop a Welsh policy that places food security and food production at the heart of Welsh Government decision-making, as well as enhance the positive impact farmers already have on the environment through incentivising sustainability.
Importantly, we would ensure baseline support payment is open and accessible to all active farmers that underpins agriculture and food production, whilst ‘exit payments’ could also help open door to a new generation of farmers, another benefit of taking back control of farming policy.
These radical changes are possible precisely because we have left the European Union, where decades under CAP has been a proven disaster for the environment, and done little to encourage sustainable food production.
This is a chance to introduce ‘Made in Wales’ solutions, and Welsh Conservatives have a plan for rural recovery from the scourge of COVID-19.
Welsh Conservatives would take the opportunity to call time on Natural Resources Wales, which has been besieged by scandal, incompetence and poor staff morale since its inception in 2013.
We’d ensure that departments and arms-length bodies are delivering value for money for the taxpayer, and we’d take this opportunity to reset and enhance the environmental protection, regulation and maintenance of nature resources throughout Wales.
There’s every reason to feel positive for the future, and the elections in May will chart a course for the future at the most significant time for Welsh farming in our lifetimes.
Welsh Conservatives will build a better Wales and it’s an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
Janet Finch-Saunders is the Member of the Senedd for Aberconwy and the Shadow Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs.