While on holiday last week, I re-read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it exposed the destruction of wildlife through the widespread use of pesticides and arguably inspired the modern environment movement.

It remains a compelling read (similar in style to that of a modern dystopian novel but one based on facts rather than fiction) and provides a sobering reminder of what happens when humans fail to understand how their actions impact the natural world.

Most of the chemicals that Rachel Carson wrote about more than 50 years ago have long since been banned, but land management has continued to change as have wildlife populations: the UK Government’s farmland bird index has declined by 54% since 1970 and the farmland butterfly index has declined by 41% since 1976. In fact, evidence points agriculture as the biggest driver of biodiversity decline both in the UK (and globally).

It’s not just about butterflies and little brown jobs though. Evidence of invertebrate collapse, doomsday climate change projections and costs associated with soil degradation - £1.2 billion per year in England and Wales alone – suggest we are undermining the very natural capital that future food production depends upon.

That is why I have been enthusiastic about government proposals to reform agriculture policy in England after the UK has left the European Union. Getting the regulations and incentives right in a future policy will be crucial for the future of wildlife.

So, it was deeply concerning to come back from my holiday to hear rumours that the Government was thinking of watering down the previously unequivocal focus on payments for public goods – those things we need, such as wildlife and clean water, but which we can’t pay for at the till. 

The cirl bunting population has had a eight-fold increase and shows what can be achieved when farmers, conservationists and nature work together supported by the right subsidy scheme (photo credit Andy Hay rspb-images.com)

Last week, we joined forces with 54 other organisations (with farming, environment, food and public health interests) to sign a letter to the Prime Minister (attached at the bottom of this blog) welcoming her clear commitment to focusing public funds in return for public goods, such as biodiversity, animal welfare and public access.

Such a breadth of support for the Government’s position should leave them in no doubt how many different sectors and interests are counting on them to come good on their commitments to reform. Many in the farming community, represented by some of the organisations that signed this letter, are counting on government to provide them with the support to secure their long-term productivity by improving their soils, restoring pollinators and other beneficial insects, and taking steps to improve the management of shared water resources.

A public goods approach to future farming and land management policies in across the UK is essential to create a countryside rich in wildlife and underpin the credibility of the Government’s 25-year environment plan. An independent assessment of funding need (commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and the RSPB) suggests that at least £2.3 billion will be needed per year for environmental land management alone across the UK, 450% more than is spent on existing agri-environment schemes.

Yet this public goods approach is also essential to build the resilience of farming and food production to the inevitable environmental change that we all face now, and in the future.

As I said on this morning's Today Programme, this is the opportunity to create a different future for food, farming and wildlife.

As we look forward then to the Agriculture Bill and the policy statement that we expect to be published with it, we hope that rumours of a change in direction are just that - rumours. The Government’s consultation document in the Spring provided welcome clarity by saying that a new agricultural policy should be “…underpinned by payment of public money for the provision of public goods” and stating that the “…principal public good we want to support in future is environmental protection and enhancement”. I suspect that the 44,000 responses to that consultation largely agreed with this approach.

If we are not to fall at the final hurdle, the Agriculture Bill and policy statement will need to reflect this clarity in order to give farmers the confidence they need to plan for a transition to a future where they will be supported for delivering public goods.

I’ll leave the final words to Rachel Carson whose words in 1962 continue to resonate today:

“We stand now where two roads diverge… The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road… offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.

Coalition Agriculture Bill letter to the Prime Minister August 2018.pdf
  • I wonder what the total number of members are represented by these organisations? Many millions I suspect although it must be difficult to assess with multiple memberships. I think I would be counted eight times! Surely a large enough demographic to make our lawmakers wake/sit up though!