The year after the UK vote to leave the European Union has been dominated by a lot of words but not a great deal of substantive action. This side of the election, it’s hard to escape the feeling that action to shape our future outside of the EU is about to kick into gear.
Lots of people ask me what I see as the main risks and opportunities associated with Brexit, and my consistent answer to the latter has been the chance to radically reform agriculture policy so that it delivers much more for nature. The recently announced Agriculture Bill brings that opportunity into sharp relief.
So it’s great that today a group of academics under the banner of ‘Brexit and Environment’ are launching two short reports; one on agriculture, and another on fisheries (of which we’ve heard a lot over the weekend and I may return to later in the week). Here though, I want to talk about farming, and what we get as a society from land.
Farmland birds like the skylark are in decline (photo by Nigel Blake, rspb-images.com)
As I’ve written before, what happens with farming is fundamental to the fate of wildlife in the UK and globally. Over the last 50 years, agricultural management (which is the dominant land use covering 75% of the UK) has been the biggest driver of species declines in the UK. Much of this has been driven by inappropriate public policy, particularly the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Although some of the more damaging aspects of the CAP have in recent years been reformed, it has failed to do enough to undo the damage of the past, and we continue to lose wildlife from our countryside as a result.
We now have the opportunity to put this right.
The Agriculture Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech last month must put the environment at the heart of farming and land use policies in the future. Many of the things we need from the countryside – wildlife, clean water, flood protection, carbon storage – cannot be bought at the till. These are ‘public goods’ that the market does not provide, and we have argued for a long time that there is a clear case to make for investing the current annual £3.1 billion of tax payers money in agriculture and land management if the focus is to be on securing these public benefits that we all need.
This approach provides the strongest case for continued investment given the range of environmental benefits that farmers are uniquely placed to provide for society. It is also the best, long-term bet for the sector, given the importance of our natural resources to the future viability of production and the cross party and public support this commands.
The report mentioned above comes to roughly this conclusion, but also identifies some tricky issues to deal with along the way. First and foremost amongst these is the issue of devolution. Given the febrile nature of UK politics at the moment, this issue could easily derail the whole Bill, and with it any chance of seizing this opportunity. To make sure this is avoided, the UK Government must engage early, and work collaboratively with its devolved counterparts to develop a framework for future policies by consensus, based on mutual agreement over their direction and purpose.
And this is the key point. There will be lots of detailed debate about the shape and design of future policies. Right now though, we need legislators across the UK to be ambitious with post-Brexit farming and land use policies, and to set a clear direction of travel from the outset. Whilst a transition phase is necessary and inevitable, this must be for a pre-defined period if we are to avoid drift and inertia.
Brexit poses huge challenges for farming and wildlife, but also opportunities. To secure a better future for farming and to put life, colour and sound back into the countryside, we need the Government set out an ambitious new vision for the environment and a radical new public policy on farming and land use.
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