Making public goods pay – new research shows that at least £3 billion is needed to support nature-friendly farming in the UK

By Ellie Brodie Senior Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, Marcus Gilleard Senior Policy Programme Manager at the National Trust, and Alice Groom Senior Policy Officer at RSPB.

Today, three major conservation organisations – the National Trust, the RSPB, and The Wildlife Trusts – publish landmark independent research on future agriculture policy.

This research suggests that at least £2.9 billion is needed to support farmers and land managers to play their part in helping to meet existing UK commitments to restore nature and tackle climate change.

The UK currently spends £3.2 billion every year on farm payments under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Post-Brexit this money could be redirected from area-based subsidies to payments to help farmers and land managers conserve and enhance the natural environment for the benefit of everyone. This is what is known as public money for public goods.  

Currently, the EU drives our farming policy through the CAP and is the basis for much of our environmental law. It is therefore unsurprising that since the EU Referendum in 2016 there has been ongoing debate about both the future of farming and the environment. 

Awareness of the impacts of food production on the natural environment is higher than it has ever been. New statistics show that 9 out of 10 adults in England are concerned about the increasing threats to the natural environment with nearly two-thirds specifically worried about biodiversity loss. This sits alongside a drop in the social acceptability of damaging farming practices.  A series of reports including the State of Nature and Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published over the last few years have shone a light on the urgent crisis facing both our climate and wildlife. Civil society movements, including the School Climate Network and Extinction Rebellion have joined an ever louder and strident call for urgent action.

Farming is one of the main causes of wildlife declines, but with management of over 70% of UK land, farmers can help provide the solution too. We must have new agricultural policies across the four countries of the UK that support and reward farmers and land managers that help to reverse the fortunes of wildlife and our shared natural environment. This is not just important to tackle the current ecological crisis; it is also essential to nurture a resilient and sustainable food and farming sector.

Both farmers and the environment have struggled within the CAP. Many farmers and land managers have also gone to great lengths to support wildlife and the climate but without being adequately rewarded. It’s time to build policies that are fit for the future.

A key question in this debate is around the funding of future policies – specifically, how much will it cost to support farmers and land managers to play their part in helping to meet existing UK commitments to restore nature and tackle climate change? We asked this question in a piece of independent research, published today with an accompanying policy briefing.

The research shows that at least £2.5 billion is needed to support farmers and land managers to pay for ‘public goods’ such as creating and enhancing wildlife habitats, planting trees, protecting soils to enable farming to continue in the future; and to ensure clean water for us to drink and for wildlife to thrive in across the UK. But more is needed, the research also asks about the costs of providing supporting advice; delivering public goods in places where the farming system itself is important for nature, such as in parts of the uplands; the costs to lock-in the public goods associated with long term land use change; and the role of alternative payment approaches. When these other costs are factored in, the estimated budget increases to at least £2.9 billion. Over the next month we will publish briefings and blogs that explain the findings of each of these elements of the research in turn.

The model which sits behind the research can generate updated cost estimates as ambition is raised – or to ensure a fair reward for farmers, foresters and land managers playing a crucial role in protecting and enhancing our natural world.

With a focus on environmental land management, it does not include all practices carried out by all actors to address all environmental aims, nor account for the range of investments currently funded by domestic and EU funding mechanisms, such as LIFE, National Lottery Heritage Fund and INTERREG. Continued funding for interventions, such as targeted species recovery, cross-border cooperation and public engagement will all be necessary in the future, as will investment from the private sector.

Crucially, this research demonstrates that supporting farmers and land managers to play their part in recovering nature and stopping climate change is affordable. We can repurpose the public money already spent on farming, to deliver public goods through new nature-friendly farming policies in each of the four countries of the UK. Doing so will also nurture sustainable and resilient farming and land management.

Download the introductory briefing Paying for Public Goods from environmental land management in England