This week, we expect Defra to table its new Agriculture Bill. This Bill will set out what the future for agriculture in England will look like once the UK has left the European Union, and with it the infamous Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
For wildlife and the environment, it is a crucial moment. We know that agriculture is the biggest driver of biodiversity decline, but we also know that this has been driven by counter-productive policies, and pressure from markets. Many farmers we work with want a future policy to do much more to help them restore wildlife to their farms and the wider countryside.
And this is exactly what Defra have said they will do. In their consultation paper published earlier in the year, they set out their intention to redirect public money toward public goods. This means the goods and services farmers provide but which we can’t pay for at the till, such as more wildlife, clean water and carbon storage. Within this they made it clear that the “principal public good we want to support in future is environmental protection and enhancement”, and that a new environmental land management scheme would be the cornerstone of a future farming policy.
Field margin at RSPB's Hope farm. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
At the time, we welcomed this as an important statement of intent that Defra was determined to support farmers to play their part in improving the environment and meeting the aims of its recently published 25 year plan to restore nature in a generation. As the dominant land use across the UK, getting agriculture policies right will be the critical success factor as to whether the UK Government will meet its own objectives and international obligations.
With stories of hedgehogs being largely absent from the British countryside, joining well-worn tales of farmland bird declines, further delay now could be disastrous for many species. Not only that, but increasing evidence suggests that, with declines of invertebrates, loss of soils and the risks associated with climate change, farming and food production itself may become increasingly untenable if we don’t act.
So this week, we need the Agriculture Bill (and the detailed policy document expected to be published alongside it) to address these challenges. Last month, the RSPB was one of 55 organisations who wrote to the Prime Minster urging her to follow through on the commitments to reform made earlier in the year.
This means clearly identifying public goods as the priority for public investment on the face of the Bill. It means delivering on the intention to focus on protecting and enhancing the natural environment, with a reference to clear and ambitious targets for natures recovery. And it means making sure that farmers have the tools through a properly funded environmental land management scheme to make this ambition a reality.
With Greener UK we have set out six asks for the Agriculture Bill which we think will be needed to meet these commitments. Although the Bill is largely relevant to England, and we expect the devolved administrations to bring forward their own legislation, the need for environmental ambition is common across the UK, and collaboration between all UK governments will therefore be essential.
This week, and the next few months as the Bill passes through Parliament, will frame the future of agriculture policy for at least the next decade. All environmental indicators point to the fact that we need a change in direction, and this Bill will be the biggest test to date of the Government’s willingness to meet its environmental rhetoric with clear and determined action.
By Friday, we should know whether they’ve cleared the first hurdle.
As you say Martin, this is a critical moment. The risk of ‘mission creep’ away from public benefit objectives back to what farmers want to do has happened time and time again. There is the added issue of the interests of senior conservative figures and their close supporters who farm and benefit from current subsidies distorting Government policy.
There are two very significant routes to making the conservation case more compelling.
Conservation has got into the bad habit of always talking up the costs of looking after the environment – for some it seems almost a badge of their commitment. It has not worked well under the current Government. Land managers must be paid to deliver vital environmental outcomes – but to suggest that the money paid out is pure cost – or subsidy – it wildly misleading. Bearing in mind that the collateral damage from present day agriculture may well equal the cost of subsidies it seems increasingly likely that new, natural capital based approaches could save rather than spend money – water costs alone, flooding and diffuse pollution, almost certainly account for half the current subsidy bill.
The other is the effective downgrading of the direct impact of environment on people’s lives by talking simply about access to the countryside. We should rather be talking about quality of life, a massively broader and more important issue, strongly supported by the NCC in their proposition that 250,000 hectares of new green space close to people could generate economic benefit of £500m per annum. BBC Springwatch and your own blog have highlighted the spectacular transformation of landscape restoration in some of our most damaged post-industrial landscapes. Land now far more valuable as nature reserve and for people to enjoy than intensive farmland, let alone old mine workings. We need to emphasise – and we have the evidence, and NCC support – that the countryside is a central part of people’d lives, not simply a place to go for a walk. Looking beyond the present Government, it also makes the link to Labour’s social justice agenda, so far notable for its disinterest in the restoration of nature.
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