Guest blog from Rhys Evans, Policy Officer, RSPB Cymru

Before Christmas, the Welsh Government launched its Agriculture (Wales) White Paper - an important consultation that sets out the legislative and support framework for Welsh agriculture for the next fifteen to twenty years.

Image: Rhys Evans

The White Paper is what’s often described as an enabling piece of legislation.  That is, it consults on the necessary legislation or powers for the Welsh Government to be able to implement its own policies in the future. For example, it proposes powers that will enable Welsh Government to:

  • continue to support agriculture

  • reform regulation through the creation of National Minimum Standards

  • provide support for the wider agriculture and food industry and the supply chain

  • add conditions and amendments to tree felling licences, and in doing so updating the Forestry Act 1967 (which is over 50 years old)

  • improve animal health and welfare

  • improve monitoring through the effective use of data and remote technology

It's also good to see that the new policy will be underpinned by the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – two key pieces of legislation unique to Wales.

Facilitating nature-friendly farming

The consultation doesn’t necessarily set out what that future legislation is intended to deliver. Having said that, it does give a strong indication of what future agricultural policy will look like. For example, Government’s three priorities for agriculture includes sustainable food production, taking action to respond to the climate emergency and reversing the decline in biodiversity.

This is very positive, particularly the last point - farming can play a huge role in restoring nature but to do so we need policies that facilitates and rewards nature friendly farming.

Image: Jodie Randall

Public money for public goods

That’s why we strongly support the key principle that public money should pay farmers for the delivery of environmental public goods (at levels above those set by regulation or National Minimum Standards) such as abundant nature, storing carbon, natural flood defence, clean air, water and healthy soils. We also welcome that the proposals include plans to move away from paying farmers for simply having land and instead to use public money to help them become more efficient and sustainable food producers. This will ensure taxpayer’s money secures as much value to the public as possible, clearly something that is very important during this unprecedented time and increasing demands on the public purse.

While we recognise these are challenging times for Welsh farming, we believe adopting a business as usual approach to future policy would be a mistake and work against Wales’ ambition to be a truly sustainable country.  The current payment system has failed to adequately protect farming and nature. For example, there are 800 fewer farms in Wales today than in 2014, whilst 1 in 6 species are threatened with extinction in Wales (with farmland nature in serious decline). Furthermore, recent research shows that direct subsidies paid to farmers based on the area farmed are associated with a relatively large decrease in the stability of farm income, across most farm types. In contrast, adopting agro-ecological farming practices and higher agri-environment payments increase the stability of farm income.

Image: Guto Davies

There is no evidence to suggest that retaining non-objective direct payments will benefit farming, nature, promote food security and, importantly, secure value for public money during a time when the use of public finance is going to come under intense scrutiny. For this reason, RSPB Cymru continues to support the direction of travel indicated by the White Paper, including the use of public money to help farmers restore nature, tackle climate change and to promote sustainable food production and onward supply chains.

Woodland creation

That’s not to say that we don’t have our concerns. For example, it’s apparent that the Welsh Government see agricultural policy as a key vehicle to drive woodland creation in Wales. Whilst planting trees will be vital to help tackle climate change, there’s a risk of repeating past mistakes through inappropriate tree planting that could threaten biodiversity. That’s why it’s vital that we plant the right tree in the right place. The new policy must reward farmers appropriately for delivering Nature Based Solutions for climate, which includes things like appropriate tree planting, restoring peatland, encouraging species rich grasslands and multi species leys, planting and managing hedgerows, and wetland creation. We have also have not yet seen the accompanying report on the economic effects of scheme proposals on farm businesses. This is likely to be a key piece of work regarding future decisions.

Image: Rhys Evans

The devil will be in the detail of course.  We look forward to seeing more information on the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme – the vehicle at the heart of future agricultural policy that will help deliver the ambition set out in the White Paper. In the meantime, we believe the publication of the Welsh Agriculture Bill White Paper is a significant step towards developing much needed policies that will help Welsh farmers restore nature, tackle climate change and produce food sustainably for this and future generations.

The consultation is open until 25 March 2021. Have you responded yet?