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April 10 DEFRA/Sustain Workshop: A brighter future for farming and our countryside
1. Overall strategy
One of the failings of the existing system (pillar 1/2) is that it has resulted in a disassociation between nature/the environment and food production. The scheme that replaces it must combine CAP funding pillars one and two, and not just an enhancement of pillar 2.
A flaw in current agro-environment schemes is that they promote a piecemeal approach focused on individual farming practises. The new scheme must embrace sustainability ‘in the round’. As part of this process the language/terminology (Agro-environmental/Environmental land management) needs to be replaced by something new.
There is ample evidence of the failure of the current system which motivates farmers to implement change ‘around the edges’ rather than as a core aspect of their business. A (literal) example is the verges between fields which should encourage biodiversity but tend to be grass-covered because of decades of nitrates applied to the soil.
2. Regulatory framework
Environmental principles contained in existing EU policy must be maintained and made the legal basis of post-withdrawal environmental land management policy. These include Polluter Pays, Access to Environmental Information, Do no harm and Rectification at source
There needs to be a strong legal framework based on standards for a set of pre-determined categories (soil, biodiversity, water etc) themselves with a series of underlying metrics - e.g. for soil: worm health, carbon etc. These standards/metrics can be a combination of processes and outcomes and need to be developed and applied in an integrated manner to avoid a siloed approach to environmental outcomes.
This standardised baseline should provide the minimum threshold for subsidies – i.e. only when farmers meet these standards can they apply for public funding. Regulations must be accompanied by appropriate enforcement (with the necessary investment), including surprise farm inspections.
3. Public Goods
In the Agriculture Command Paper, ‘Productivity’ is listed as a Public Good, and there is concern that this single consideration will eclipse all others. Productivity needs to be redefined to mean productive output when integrated with other public goods
‘Public health’ is not included in the list of public goods but needs to be added – to promote healthy outcomes for the population. These might include public paths (exercise and mental health) and local community food plans (nutrition).
4. Financial Incentives
A criticism of the existing system is that some farmers have got very good at ‘farming the subsidy’ – without improving their overall environmental record. In future all future public payments should be conditional on no damage being incurred anywhere.
Subsidies alone are not an adequate financial instrument to drive change since many farmers run profitable businesses without public money. Taxation/financial penalties need to be imposed e.g. fertiliser tax or subsidy cap on anyone who uses fertiliser – this is a logical extension of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
Subsidies need to encourage best practise, and specifically diversification, rotations and mixed farming. Farmers tendering for public goods (see ‘Bright Blue’ proposal) is counter-productive.
Conservation covenants (voluntary agreements between a landowner and responsible body to act according to a defined conservation purpose) and mandatory membership of a farm assurance scheme are other potentially helpful instruments for driving environmental standards.
The new approach needs to promote a move from a lack of incentives for long-term-thinking, to one that promotes investment in our shared future (Michael Gove at Prosperity UK conference), however currently there is an unwillingness among banks and others to consider long-term agro- ecological impacts in their investment strategies.
Where there is an interest in the environment (e.g. Dutch investment bank Triodos) there is little interest in soil. When considering an investment, carbon inputs appear on the bottom line, but nitrate use does not.
In the development of post-Brexit trade deals, the environmental standards that are developed and imposed for home-grown produce must also apply to imports – to ensure a financial level playing field as well as sustainable outputs.
Great Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’ image will be an important aspect of the building of Brand UK around the world, however it’s worth noting that 96% of farmers don’t directly export, and that the focus on trade should not distract from the overall message that local/regional supply and consumption is best.
7. Education and training
Alongside money and information, machismo is a significant barrier preventing farmers from sharing advice and insights. There is a need to incentivise peer-to-peer collaboration and education. There is also a need to build trust between farmers and regulators after the recent Rural Payments Agency ‘nightmare’.
Both the general public and farmers need educating in the role of the supply chain and its influence on price and environmental standards. This needs to extend to an understanding of the impact of price on pay levels in rural levels.
The new scheme needs to embrace smaller farmers who are currently excluded from CAP subsidy regime by the 5-hectare threshold. Alongside financial incentives education and support in areas such as waste management and getting involved in local supply chains are needed.
The lack of broadband in many rural areas is a considerable barrier to knowledge take-up and sharing by farmers.
8. Future Campaigning
Brexit will mean that some devolved powers will be returned to Westminster, however it remains to be seen how subsidy budget allocation will be allocated. A joined up approach is necessary to create a coherent approach in all countries of the UK.
Efforts by farming-focused campaigners need to be closely aligned and integrated with those of high-profile wildlife NGOs.
Matthew Orman, Sustainable Soils Alliance, April 16 2018