When it comes to farming and the environment it feels like Governments have been tinkering at the margins for a long time, and I mean this literally and metaphorically. Public money paid to farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has done a decent job in recent years helping farmers to make field edges places that can support wildlife: hedgerows have been looked after and replanted, field margins left uncropped and unsprayed and planted with wildflower and seed mixtures to feed birds and insects. These are entirely welcome.
Yet look to the field itself, to the expanse of land and its soil. Across far too many fields there is drab monoculture and barely evidence of life. The abundance of nature that farmland used to, and still could, support - has been depleted. Soil biodiversity and organic matter barely gets consideration, though they are crucial to sustaining the food chain, recycling nutrients, locking up carbon, filtering and storing water. The soil and its life sustains all of us – the human family and other animals – but much too little is being been done to protect soils and restore them at both a field and landscape scale.
Farming policy, too, has long been stuck on the political margins. Defra, the Government department devoted to the environment, farming, food and rural matters, has itself seemed a rural backwater. Savaged by austerity cuts – around half of its budget gone since 2010 – it struggles to get its views heard across Government or in the Treasury. And with farm policy largely tied to the CAP, which has been cumbersome, unarguably bureaucratic and slow to change, the Government has been unable or unwilling to tackle the problems farming and the farmed landscape face.
Brexit has changed all that. For the first time in 40 years there is a chance to shape a farming policy to match our needs. It is a momentous opportunity and a challenge for the Government and for all those who care about the environment and the future of farming. The goal must be to create a resilient, financially stable and dynamic farming industry, which works for the wider community as well as for the environment. Economics will of course be a critical factor: farms are businesses that need to make a profit yet falling prices in unpredictable markets and erratic weather make that decreasingly easy. Many farms are on CAP life support. They only turn a profit on farming because of public funding.
Public finance – at nearly £3 billion a year –needs to become publicly accountable and progressive if it is to be maintained. We need farms to survive to go on to thrive, so some funds should provide a safety net for those in direst need. Ultimately, though, most public money needs to go to reward farmers for delivering public benefits that the market won’t pay for: wildlife, space for recreation, landscape, clean rivers, reducing flood risk and tackling climate change. We can’t rely on farmers’ benevolence and voluntary action on the environment when they face tough markets and a fight to survive. But we can’t rely either on public benevolence to fund farmers for business as usual.
It’s clear too that farming can’t be driven by economics alone. Farming going forward has to engage with wider issues to reduce the risks to us and itself. The industrialised farming that has become the norm over the past 50 or more years has used ever larger machinery and been over-reliant on chemicals – fertilisers and pesticides – and fossil fuels. Its greenhouse gas emissions have fallen since 1990, true, but at half the rate of other industries. This now ‘conventional’ form of farming has damaged wildlife, water quality, soils and landscapes, with too little to show that nature and its resources are being protected let alone regenerated.
Farming now needs to:
- find a new balance with nature to restore the health, abundance and variety of the natural environment
- reduce risks and costs to itself, particularly from climate change
- make soils more resilient and able to withstand drought or extreme rain without erosion or crop failure
The trends that have shaped farming since the Second World War now need to be re-evaluated, and with scope for a new farming policy this is the time for it to happen. Industrialised farming has become increasingly specialised with fewer crops, more monocultures and loss of livestock from the countryside. Farms are growing in size and smaller farms disappearing: we have lost more than 30,000 during the past decade alone. With fewer people farming, fewer working the land and farmsteads converted to homes or business parks, farming is less and less at the heart of rural life. And the public are less linked than ever to the land that feeds them. Without connection why should people care about farms or farmers or what they do?
Whichever way you look at it, something has to change. We need more farms, farmers and greater diversity in the sector, not fewer globally competitive ones. We need to find ways to encourage new people with new ideas into the industry and enable them to progress from farm to farm. We need more horticulture to make up our national gap, stronger connections to communities and support for local and short supply chains to provide food connected to seasons, plot and place. And to this we need to add further diversity on the farm: in fields and what is cropped and how fields are managed. Government must provide the backbone to this transformation, to measure what matters on the land and to put in place policy and a framework that rewards the long-term production of a healthy resilient countryside with abundant nature.
Some of these ideas are explored in a new report from CPRE: New Model Farming: resilience through diversity. It’s meant to provoke discussion and debate. Please read it and let us know what you think.