A guest blog by Phil Carson, RSPB NI Policy Officer (Sustainable Farming).

On Wednesday, the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs announced plans for a future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland which aims to be environmentally sustainable, productive and resilient. This represents the biggest shake-up of farming and land use in 40 years.
These high-level ambitions are welcome, but there is concern that the reality won’t match the rhetoric.

Bumble bee in field

Sustainable farming and land management is vital for addressing the climate and nature emergencies, providing good livelihoods for farmers and rural communities and delivering a broad range of benefits to society. However, the policies which shape how we farm and manage land in Northern Ireland have ultimately failed to deliver these benefits. Wildlife in our countryside is in decline, our environment is under increasing pressure from intensified agriculture and many farmers face an uncertain future; it’s clear our food and farming system needs transformed.

Cow on Rathlin Island

Cow on Rathlin Island. Photo credit: Hazel Watson (rspb-images.com)

Yesterday, the Minister for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) announced his plans for a future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland, which represents the biggest shake-up of farming and land use in 40 years. The end goal is to deliver a sustainable agricultural industry which is productive, environmentally sustainable, resilient and focuses on the supply chain.  We welcome these high-level ambitions, but we're concerned that the reality won't match the rhetoric. 

Farming that’s good for people and nature
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016 offered an opportunity to reconsider Northern Ireland’s objectives for farming and rural land use. Throughout, RSPB NI been calling for radical policy changes to ensure farming delivers for nature, people and climate through the repurposing of public money to reward farmers for enhancing the environment instead of compensating farmers for the size of their land. The Minister’s announcement this week outlined a number of potential payment schemes that could form part of a new policy. While some of these are proven to provide benefits for nature, several of the proposed schemes have led to intensification of farming, environmental decline and no increased profitability for farmers. These do not represent a good investment and will do little to enable the agriculture sector to meaningfully help tackle the climate and nature crises.

Wildflower borders along farm fields

Developing laws to enable change
For the long-term, continued investment in farming and land use to be valuable, it must benefit both the agriculture sector and wider communities. This will be achieved by paying farmers for the delivery of essential services (aka public goods), including high quality water, clean air, productive soil, climate change mitigation and a countryside rich in wildlife.

To enable this transformational change, a future policy framework must be underpinned by bespoke agricultural legislation for Northern Ireland. At present, the UK Agriculture Bill provides a legal backing for this but allows the payment schemes to continue in their current form. While the Minister has powers to amend these schemes, this may only lead to incremental changes. Considering the urgent challenges facing both farming and the environment, there needs to be a clear legal purpose for future agricultural support with the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ at the heart of future policy and legislation

The development of Northern Ireland agricultural legislation would also provide a clear transition period from the current policy to the next and demonstrate genuine intent to change. Failure to outline a transition period is likely to result in inaction which will only exacerbate the issues facing farming, nature and the climate.

Moving forward
Never before have we had such an opportunity for transformational change within our food and farming system. We welcome progress on the development of a future policy framework for Northern Ireland and the recognition of the need to move away from the status quo, but we must be bold in the approach, with clear steps on how to get there and - most importantly - we must get it right.

While RSPB NI support some of the Minister’s thinking in relation to environmental delivery, we’re concerned that good work in one area will be undermined by inappropriate practises in another. The Minister should now work with stakeholders from across environmental, land management and farming sectors to build on this vision, to ensure that the right systems and support are put in place to deliver a farming system that’s good for people and good for nature.

If you want to help secure a nature-friendly future for farming in Northern Ireland, you can start by signing up to become an RSPB campaigner and use the power of your voice to call for change. Get all the details here.