This week I am encouraging commentators from outside the RSPB to offer their views on the paper that I presented to the Oxford Farming Conference this week.  You can read a copy of my paper here. After Matthew Naylor's comments yesterday, my second guest post comes from Allan Buckwell. Allan has remained a highly respected commentator of CAP issues over a number of years and has always looked to push the debate to find solutions to meet the need of everyone with an interest in what happens in our countryside.  He pulls no punches in his comments below.

"I would have enjoyed seeing the reactions of the Conference to the RSPB’s Martin Harper.  Apart from some snarls and grimaces, I suspect that for the majority of the audience the reaction to his paper would have been ‘yeah yeah, we know we have not yet found the optimal balance between food production and nature, but what new ideas has this guy got to get closer to the right mix?’

Harper’s proposition is that food production has to increase, and environmental care has to increase too.  I don’t think anyone seriously argues about either statement. The CLA has argued Europe’s key policy in this area has to become focused on ‘Food and Environmental Security’, and the NFU’s motto is ‘produce more impact less’. This ‘only’ leaves us to dispute the details of how to do it – and critically – who pays?  

This is where the worrying dearth of new ideas hits home.  We’ve got lots of new jargon.   Sustainability on its own is now passé so we add an extra word and talk about ‘sustainable intensification’.  It is also compulsory nowadays to throw in ‘externalities, market failures, public goods, and ecosystem services’.  All of these are well-defined concepts within their own spheres of economics and ecology, but will take more time before they are used correctly and usefully in the public debates – but credit to the OFC for inviting speakers who provide this educative role.

Harper tries out the land sparing versus land sharing dichotomy to try and describe how some aspects food production and the environment are competitive and should be produced on separate parcels of land (sparing), whereas others can be produced together on the same parcel (sharing).  But having run with the idea he concludes “There is a continuum of approaches to land management, and each situation should be assessed on its own merits rather than attempting to apply one particular model across the board.”   Ho hum.

Where Harper seems to pull his punches is with regard to the correct policy approach in Britain and the EU.  He is surprisingly soft on the Government’s stance. 

My view is that until and unless there is public acceptance of the scale and seriousness of the market failures in land management which mean that farmers are properly remunerated for producing the non-food ecosystem services which only they can provide, then we will continue to wring our hands about the deterioration of environmental capital.  It is entirely reasonable that the appropriate policy is operated at the EU level, and that the CAP provides the mechanisms and funds.  The Commission’s proposals for CAP reform with its 30% Greening of Pillar 1 can be interpreted to suggest a massive increase in funding for delivery of environmental services from about €2.5b/yr to €15b/yr.  The way the Commission proposes doing the greening is poor, but there is time and scope to improve this.  The UK problem is that whilst Defra’s rhetoric is for more sustainable land management, and is doubtless sincere about its international commitments on biodiversity and climate change, the UK stance on the CAP reform is owned by the Euro-sceptic, British Budget Rebate-obsessed Treasury. The Chancellor shoved ‘the greenest government’ pan firmly to the back burner in his autumn statement – so I’m afraid the signs are not good for better “balancing agricultural production and conservation”."

Do you agree with Allan?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Think we all basically agree that the present schemes do not really provide whatever is needed to increase farmland birds in particular and other things so we need more research urgently to get guidelines on what is needed in these schemes.

    One thing is certain we need farmers and RSPB to work together whatever else happens.

    Another certainty even however much hated is farms will get bigger and maybe even more specialised in cropping as no farmer nowadays could possibly afford the amount of machinery to go down the mixed farmer route.Just during a relatively short farming career I have seen farms treble in size and through history a similar thing has always been the case.The actual facts are from all evidence is that majority of young people do not want to farm because the rewards are not as great as say working less hours in Honda factory or similar and I bet that most of Ag College leavers are not in farming 5 years after leaving which has always been the case.

    Peters idea of redistributing land is wishful thinking,that does not mean I would be against it but we would soon end up in a similar position as the best ones would soon buy out the worst also Government has no money to redistribute the land,indeed through the councils are actively selling farms.If the young people cannot afford a meagre deposit on a house what chance of buying land,livestock,feed,implements etc.Even the communists cannot make a system like that work.

    Personally think we are getting the best solution in future if we get 7% of all farmland wildlife friendly and growing the things that are needed and lets hope conservationists accept that this is a good idea and not just criticise it because they are in the habit of doing it and perhaps they think they cannot be conservationists and say that is a good deal.Of course some conservationists will say it is a good deal but they seem very rare.

    Sincerely hope you see the 7% scheme in a positive light Martin.We are actually moving forward faster than the critics would have people believe but some would not like that truth out in the open.

  • I believe support should be targeted towards the small traditional or mixed farmer ; large scale East Anglia should be largely abandoned to intensive food production. I agree that arable bar field margins should be intensive for food security. It is in areas that use to be described as Less Favoured that most support should be directed. I also feel that we have to re-visit forestry in the uplands ( with smart planting of larch and rides) and try and bring the treeline down the hill; the internationally important wader assemblage of the uplands has already been largely lost and we need more timber for a non brick housing sector. The emphasis on livestock production will decline (its my guess) as people eat less meat and it becomes more expensive.

    The key issue of new young entrants to farming and land redistribution is not addressed; for me it means that larger estates or ranches have to be dis-incentivised with support targetted to the young or smaller farmer. To this end it is my belief we need to look to the break up of the ranches and the highly concentrated pattern of land ownership needs to be tackled; we need to really think about land release to the young both for scale farming and new land co-ops seeking sustainability. My own view is that all aristocratic and Royal land holdings should be redistributed to their current tenants and to people who wish to live sustainably or farm the land; something along the lines of the old council farm tenancies but at a massive scale of land liberation.