I am wrapping a few things up before heading off on holiday tomorrow to our family hut on the Northumberland coast (via RSPB Saltholme to help celebrate Hen Harrier Day).

Before I go, I wanted to reflect on the great intervention by National Trust on the future of agriculture and the environment this week.  This received good media coverage including the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News.   

The biggest membership organisation in the UK has put nature front and centre in its response to the EU referendum outcome and I am delighted.

In a speech to Countryfile Live, the Trust’s Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh argued for fundamental reform to agriculture policy if we are to restore nature across the four countries of the UK, rather than just manage its decline.   Helen outlined six principles for the future of farming which we wholeheartedly support.

Andy Hay's image of stone-curlew: a species dependent on willing landowners and well funded wildlife friendly farming schemes

Many have welcomed the debate.  Predictably perhaps, some have chosen to frame what Helen said as out of touch, as the ‘same old same old’ from farmer bashing conservationists. These letters in the Telegraph give a bit of a taste. They remind me of a colleague being asked by a farmer, “do these people want feeding?”

But this sort of response totally misinterprets what the National Trust is saying.

If you read Helen’s speech, she was clear that we need to look forward - not look backward with a nostalgia for what was, but towards a ‘21st century version’ of a world rich in nature. She was clear that the future of farming and the environment is intimately linked, with the former depending to a great extent on the sustainable stewardship of the latter. Few would deny that things are massively out of kilter as things stand, and the status quo is simply not sustainable.

Yet whenever organisations like the National Trust get involved in this debate, and make the case that policy needs to drive positive change for farmers and nature, some try to shut them up by the all too familiar, yet stale, dichotomous arguments of ‘nature vs food’. Everything we have done in the last decade or so (e.g. at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire and through our work with thousands of wildlife-friendly farmers) has been to try and demonstrate that this is false dichotomy; that we can indeed have our cake and eat it.

A healthy crop at RSPB Hope Farm where we have increase farmland birds by >200% while maintaining yield

No one would deny that the maintenance of food security is one of any government’s most important jobs. What we (within the conservation and progressive farming sector) are calling for is a move away from a transparently bonkers system, where we soak the countryside in public money with no real aim or strategy, and get very little in return.

It’s completely reasonable to suggest that, after decades of environmental degradation, more of the public support that goes to agriculture should be focused on the restoration of the environment. This should be coupled with steps that enable farmers to get better value out of the supply chain, breaking the subsidy dependence that has trapped so many in the industry for so long.  

And yes, the Government should support innovation in agriculture. No one is saying that this isn’t a legitimate public policy goal. But the current system does not do this. To defend such a transparent waste of public money is not politically, financially or environmentally tenable, and attempts to do so will only lead the farming industry into a political cul-de-sac.

What the National Trust was doing this week was to get on the front foot, and make the positive case for why and how we should support agriculture and land management in a post-Brexit world. Many farmers will recognise this, and understand that in a situation where spending on farming is set against the NHS and schools, we will all need to work much harder to demonstrate the added value taxpayers get beyond what they pay for as consumers.

So for making the positive case, and for getting the post-Brexit debate off to a constructive start, I say ‘congratulations to the National Trust’.

In the autumn, I look forward to joining forces with the Trust and many others with interests in food, farming and nature conservation to make the case for a new land management policy fit for the 21st century.

For now though, I’m off on holiday.  Enjoy the rest of the summer.

  • This is a very positive move by the NT: public money for public goods should underpin future support for the countryside. However, looking at farming alone is looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Public money needs to be spent on the things we all need from the countryside - food, of course, but, contrary to the policies originally put in place in 1947 when Europe was starving, water - too much, too little, quality, biodiversity - because single-minded farming has reduced it so far- and places for people close to where they live are of equal and sometimes greater importance.

    Farming's arguments on food security and cheap food are fundamentally flawed: we already grow more than enough food to feed everyone in the UK, it is just that so much of it goes to our super-luxury diet, fed to animals so we can eat far more meat than we need. And cheap food is turning into a nightmare for farming as supermarket pressure destroys profitability - and food poverty in the UK is entirely about social policy - was it a sudden rise in food prices that led to the growth of food banks or was it the Conservative's attack on welfare ?

    But there is a real issue about profitability: firstly, first world agriculture is not economic in a globalised world leading to, secondly, not just Europe but also the ultimate champion of free trade, the USA, massively subsidising their farmers - so no subsidy isn't a level playing field in a rigged market.

    The answer ? Conservation, farming, ecosystem services and people and the countryside should be working together towards a new world that benefits everyone and, through taxpayer support and savings on eg flooding and water quality, is properly financed. The traditional sectoral conflicts risk the future of all involved in the countryside.    

  • Martin

    Fine words from the NT (for whom I used to work as a land agent years 25 yrs ago) but the ambitious claim that ‘In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends’ is misleading without context.

    An ability to grow food is one thing but to grow food, make a profit and supply affordable food to the end consumer is another. Sure, remove subsidies and hope that increased food prices take up the slack to farmers  - but hard luck those consumers on lower incomes having to spend more on their groceries (note - Arab Spring was triggered by the price of bread going up...)

    We can do it but it will take all types of farming practice from huge machines on low pressure tyres on large holdings to tiny robots with precision spray booms working on both organic and conventional farms.

    My take on the issue via a letter in The Times twitter.com/.../762238748822298624  

    Enjoy yours hols.


  • Well said National Trust. The RSPB and The National Trust working together on farming, wildlife and environmental matters generally will generate a formidable push for a more enlightened and less antideluvian approach to these issues.