During the months ahead Ministers will publish draft laws that will lay the foundations for a new farming policy – one that should pay farmers for public goods, including the recovery of wildlife. While enjoying massive public support, the policy will be under attack from those who’d rather we stick to business as usual.
England’s ‘patchwork quilt’ of fields, hedges and woods is as much a part of our national identity as Buckingham Palace or Stonehenge. Yet as we glimpse through train and car windows our familiar green landscapes, all is far from well. Streams that thread through the countryside carry topsoil and farm chemicals to the sea. Populations of birds, insects and wild animals are severely depleted or gone. Meadows rich in wild plants have nearly completely disappeared. There are several causes for these and other worrying trends, but one stands out: unsustainable farming.
The environmental impact of how we feed ourselves has become ever more evident and is why earlier this year tens of thousands of individuals and organizations took the time to respond to a government consultation on the future of agriculture in England. That process was undertaken to help identify a new farming policy arising from Britain’s exit from the European Union and its ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ (CAP). This marks something of an opportunity to halt and reverse the environmental damage caused by unsustainable farming.
For although the EU has been a broadly positive green influence, this has not been the case when it comes to agriculture. Farmers have for decades, in pursuit of ever-increasing yields, been permitted or encouraged by the way the UK has implemented Brussels-derived rules to intensify and industrialize farming practices in ways that have caused gross environmental damage. While there have latterly been attempts to ‘green’ the CAP, the extent to which this has been inadequate is seen in the many statistics that describe continuing precipitous wildlife declines. Landscapes bereft of wild animals and plants have also become more hostile to people. This not only includes visitors to the countryside, but also the farm workers who’ve increasingly been replaced by chemicals and machinery.
While halting and reversing such a deep and decades-long trend might seem like a tall order, it could be done and indeed is already government policy, one announced by the Prime Minister herself. At the launch of the new 25 Year Environment Plan in January, she set out an aim not only to halt the on-going deterioration but within a generation to improve the state of our environment. The role of new farming policies was emphasized in the plan: “we will move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods. The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement”, it said in that plan. This was a very welcome commitment, one that will be essential for meeting the goal of being the first generation to improve the state of our environment.
It is a policy also championed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove. He has said that the redirection of the three billion pounds or so of tax-funded CAP subsidy that is each year allocated to farmers is a big part of the solution, for whereas most of that vast sum is presently paid simply for growing on the land, it could in future be harnessed to protect soils and water, restore wildlife and render rural areas more amenable to public use. While some might like to continue to receive public payments without conditions, it is very clear that there is strong public support for a new way of doing things. A WWF poll, for example, found that 91 per cent of those asked wanted the UK Government to pay farmers to protect nature.
The idea of paying farmers to improve the environment is not simply a cost, however, but in many ways a sound investment. For example, paying farmers to look after the land could make drinking water cheaper (because less money will need to be spent removing chemicals and soil). It will also be possible to reduce flood risk, through restored woods and wetlands holding water in the environment, thereby keeping it out of people’s living rooms after heavy rain.
Food production would of course continue, but in a more sustainable way, for example, due to healthier populations of pollinating insects and because the soils, upon which nearly all our food supply depends, would be able to recover. Healthy soil will help farming adapt to climate change, by enabling plants to withstand drought better. Recovering soils would catch carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. A more diverse rural environment would also support diversified farm businesses, attracting tourists as well as producing food.
All these perspectives that speak against public money being spent incentivizing farmers for delivering public goods are short-sighted and would deny the huge benefits that might be delivered through the recovery of our nation’s ‘green infrastructure’, bringing multiple returns of far greater ultimate value than the payments made to farmers.
As we prepare to leave the EU and its policies, we should ponder the kind of country we wish to become. When it comes to farming policy, we must ask if it will be in our best interests to embrace grids of sterile fields, dissected by drains of brown water and bereft of wildlife, or to be a nation that is proud to be rich in vibrant landscapes, with thriving populations of native species that inspire and enrich our lives, while producing healthy high-quality food and laying the foundations for a strong and diverse rural economy.
In the Autumn Ministers will publish new draft laws that will decide which way we will go. We must all do what we can to ensure they choose to stick to their stated policy, harnessing farming as a force for environmental recovery, including by paying farmers to be a bigger part of the solution.