Ruairi Brogan, Sustainable Agriculture Policy Officer tells us more.

Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly Building. Image (c) Simon Graham

It’s been a busy period for the RSPB NI Policy & Advocacy team with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) publishing five consultations in the last four months (Rural Policy Framework, Bovine TB Eradication Strategy, Green Growth, the Food Strategy Framework, and the Environment Strategy). With the Future Agricultural Policy Framework also expected in the coming weeks, it is clear that there are significant changes afoot for our food and farming system. This blog will try to explain some of the key proposals so far.

Rural Policy Framework

In July, DAERA launched the Rural Policy Framework for Northern Ireland. This framework has been proposed as a potential replacement for the Rural Development Programme to create a sustainable rural community where people want to live, work and be active. This framework centres on 5 thematic pillars:

  • Innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Sustainable Tourism
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Employment
  • Connectivity

We welcomed many aspects of the framework, including the need to protect the environment through sustainable tourism and the creation of jobs in rural areas, tackling rural poverty and the need to innovate and create a globally competitive, regionally balanced economy. However there remains a need for environment and nature to be placed at the centre of the strategy and that future rural development schemes should be based on public money for those who deliver societal benefits and ecosystem services, such as soil, air and water improvements and tackling the nature and climate emergency, known as public goods.
It is crucial that an environmental pillar is added to the framework, dedicated to empowering rural communities to tackle the nature and climate crises, with cross-cutting relevance to the other pillars and issues set out in the framework, such as green jobs, low-carbon capital infrastructure projects, hitting climate and biodiversity targets, a just transition fund and improving health and wellbeing through high quality green space.

Wild Bird Cover with Summer Wildflowers. Image (c) Laura Smith

Future Agricultural Policy

August saw the publication of the Department’s draft Future Agricultural Policy Framework Portfolio which suggests future investment will focus on productivity, environmental sustainability, improved resilience, and supply chain functionality. The Framework Portfolio gives an insight into what to expect from future agricultural subsidy, including:

  • A significant proportion of funds diverted into future agri-environment schemes which are scalable and targeted, similar to ELMS in England.
  • Reduced levels of support including an area-based income (resilience) measure and headage sustainability measure.
  • Investment in innovation such as agri-tech, continuous professional development, a more integrated generational renewal programme, and supply chain measures.

RSPB NI is supportive of plans to focus investment on agri-environment packages in supporting a transition to more sustainable practices, enhancing the land and promoting prosperous and resilient rural communities. However, there are some concerns around the broader portfolio, for example, the headage scheme which has not yet been clearly defined. Under previous iterations of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the majority of support was directly linked to production. This resulted in a range of unintended consequences including overproduction, market distortion and significant environmental degradation. RSPB is calling for a more fundamental re-purposing of agricultural support focussing on public money for public goods, as well as robust, measurable targets for nature and biodiversity being built into the schemes.

Our previous blog reveals that not only will such investments be effective, but that well-managed restoration projects could provide the missing link between sustainable productivity, on-farm resilience, and the delivery of societal goods, contributing significantly to employment in upland and disadvantaged areas.
A follow-up consultation document is imminent and will provide more detail of these proposed measures.

Food Strategy Framework

In September, the Northern Ireland Food Strategy Framework opened for consultation. This strategy is the first of its kind and aims to ensure a coherent approach to food policy across departments and will sit alongside the Future Agricultural Policy as part of the Inter-ministerial Board’s Green Growth Strategy.
A new Food Programme Board will oversee the implementation of the Strategy, made up of representatives from all departments responsible for aspects of food, including Environment, Health, Economy, Communities, and Finance.
This Food Strategy Framework proposes a “Food Systems” approach, embracing all the elements and activities that are involved in feeding a population to provide an integrated and sustainable food system. The vision is unified under 6 key strategic priorities and guiding principles:

  1. Building connections between health/wellbeing and food - a “one health” approach for people, nature and the planet, tackling food poverty, ill health and waste.
  2. Building Sustainable Economic Prosperity – balanced growth and economic prosperity.
  3. Building a Food Culture and Food Conscious Society - establishing a strong NI food brand with civic pride for food.
  4. Protecting and Enhancing our Natural Resources - responsibly managing natural resources in a low carbon society through nature friendly farming practices and a circular economy.
  5. Building Healthy Lives through Food Education – including strong educational pull from primary schools to improve development outcomes.
  6. Building and maintaining appropriate Emergency Contingency plans across the supply chain (added due to COVID-19) - emphasising the need for food partnerships with government, voluntary and community sectors along entire supply chain to enhance accessibility to food.

A shift to a truly sustainable food system provides the best opportunity to tackle these interconnected issues effectively. With growing public concern around the nature and climate emergency there are opportunities for a local ‘brand NI’ based on sustainability, with the product being the character and health of the landscape as much as the food itself. Such accredited and branded food labels will help inform the public of the health and environmental impacts of their food, securing farmers a market premium for their produce. This focus on local, sustainable produce will however require a significantly different approach to farming compared to what has been delivered in the past, one that considers its environmental, social, and economic impacts globally and locally.

As well as the establishment of a local food brand, RSPB’s response to this consultation included a call for nature friendly eating, to connect the aspects of the sustainable food system approach, with recommendations for the inclusion of measurable “net-zero” and “nature positive” targets, as well as recognition of marine sustainability in fisheries. The response also called for stronger governmental commitments to local public procurement practices, co-design of future action plans with the eNGO sector, farmers and wider civil society as well as clearer, stronger language around the principles of the “Right to Food” and “sustainability”.

Sheffield Day of Action, Sustainable Food Places. Image (c) Regather

Environment Strategy and Green Growth

The final two interlinked aspects of food and agricultural policy in Northern Ireland were released within the last month, The Environment Strategy and The Green Growth Strategy. The Environment Strategy explains steps the Executive will take to improve the natural environment, including protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. In agriculture, the strategy acknowledges that transformation is required in order to facilitate ecosystem restoration and to halt biodiversity loss and air, soil and water degradation. It states that this will be achieved by supporting nature friendly farming. The Future Agricultural Policy sits within this broad strategy, but it is too soon to tell whether it will be effective enough to align with the targets set out in the Environment Strategy.

The Environment Strategy will, subject to Assembly approval, serve as Northern Ireland’s first Environmental Improvement Plan under the Environment Act 2021, meaning that it will be monitored and reported on annually. However, the strategy is lacking in ambition and binding, timely targets for Departments.

The Green Growth Strategy “aims to transform our society towards net-zero by 2050, protect and enhance our environment and deliver sustainable economic growth”. It is essential that the Green Growth Strategy assists, rather than undermines the achievement of biodiversity and other environmental targets e.g. water quality. Policy alignment and integration is crucial to ensure Northern Ireland’s climate and environmental ambitions are not undone by ill-conceived and competing policy imperatives.

With so many interconnected policies and strategies in development, the remainder of this Assembly mandate (finishes in May 2022) could transform the environmental policy landscape. It remains to be seen how ambitious decision makers are prepared to be in setting the food and farming system on a new trajectory towards genuine sustainability. We will continue to call for clearer, more ambitious targets for nature recovery and genuine redirection of investment to create a more sustainable and nature friendly food and farming system in Northern Ireland.

Yellowhammer, Downpatrick, County Down. Image: (c) Ruby Free

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