As the countdown to Brexit continues, the balance between crops and conservation is increasingly being scrutinised.
Under the current Common Agricultural Policy, farmers are given a basic payment according to the acres occupied. This support, intended to cover some of the costs of production and environmental measures, can also keep prices down for the consumer. However, in a recent speech, environment secretary Michael Gove announced that from 2022, farmers would only receive this type of support if they increased their environmental efforts.
Having to vie for funding against social care and the NHS, it’s clear that farmers will have to expand their vision of what agriculture means. For the National Farmers Union (NFU), this means looking to the public for support and promoting an environmental scheme that will “alleviate the impact of farming’s exposure to adverse weather, pests and diseases [and] price volatility.”
In the 1980s, the UK produced 80 percent of its own food. Today, that number has dropped to 60 percent, and we are on track to fall to just 50 percent self-sufficiency in 10 years’ time. Reasons for this include the changing tastes of consumers, as well as the rise in standards of UK food production, making local produce more costly than imports.
As a result, farmers are being encouraged to become more efficient and productive through new technologies, which can be supported through grants and tax incentives. For the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the future of British farming lies in government rewards for farmers who choose to invest in public benefits, such as planting trees, improving water quality and enhancing local wildlife.
For the CLA, government incentive contracts like these could help the post-Brexit farm system and its agricultural jobs, offering “public money for public benefit” and resulting in more sites for public recreation, healthy soils and “heritage and cultural landscapes”. However, these contracts would not extend to food production, which would remain reliant on the market for reward.
With over 600,000 acres of land in its care, the National Trust, “the nation’s largest farmer”, works closely with several environmental organisations including the WWF and Woodland Trust to lobby for greater environmental protections.
In 2017, the director-general of the National Trust, Helen Ghosh, said that there had been a dramatic decline in nature and species under the EU system and stated that in the future, rewards should be made available to farmers who deliver the most public benefit. Detailing pilot schemes for flood protection and “slow, clean water”, Ghosh also gave an example of a Yorkshire farmer who had reduced livestock numbers on his farm to increase profitability, developing a holiday rental and ready-meal business on the side.
The future of farming for Ghosh and the National Trust lies in the ability to produce food whilst keeping an eye on future opportunities; they stress the need to be flexible and open to the local approach, which in turn has a positive impact on nature and the environment. However, for many farmers, adapting could prove to be difficult, especially when food production and farming jobs have already proven themselves to be loss-making operations, with production largely unsubsidised. Whilst diversification could be the answer for farmers in areas with high numbers of tourism, for more rural farms, the investment in “greener” measures has historically proven to be more of a practical and administrative burden.
Natural England introduced a stewardship initiative that provided government funding for environmental land management in 2005. More than 50 percent of agricultural land in England is involved, and many have been rewarded for introducing things which aim to provide wildlife-friendly habitats and increase plant diversity, such as grass field margins. Although the efforts of the scheme were encouraging, research has suggested that these changes were not significant enough to demonstrate clear benefits.
“Cluster farms” may offer more hope. The Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area is one of Natural England's 12 pilot case studies, and has set out to demonstrate how a collaboration between farmers and environmental organisations could work. Spread across 25,000 acres of land in South England, 42 farmers and environmental groups including the Wiltshire Botanical Society and Butterfly Conservation have worked together to cultivate a habitat with different wild-flowers, aiming to improve plant and wildlife through bottom-up land management and involvement of the local community.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has conducted research which shows that initiatives like targeted predator control can increase the numbers of songbirds in an area. Golf courses, which are increasingly popular with farmers seeking to branch out, can be transformed into wildlife-friendly habitats. A golf course in Lincolnshire, for example, has been used to create a series of wildlife habitats, including reed beds, ponds, and 100 nest boxes.
It is this type of environmental progress that shows how farming can remain a commercial business, whilst still taking steps to be “green”. This shared sense of responsibility between landowners, farmers and environmentalists seems to be the only way in which environmental management schemes can bring a profit.
Farmland now accounts for 70 percent of the UK’s land area and therefore any new agricultural policy must not just shape the appearance of the countryside, but also the future of its wildlife and the people who ought to thrive there. A successful outcome in the years post-Brexit would look to build farmers’ confidence in the industry whilst giving them incentives to help the environment. Ultimately, sustainable and profitable farming is underpinned by a healthy natural environment, which in turn is dependent on a farming system that is sensitive to its needs; the two are inextricably linked.
It is clear that in order to remain profitable, farmers must continue to be innovative and find a balance between nature and production, otherwise they face a future where large estates with capital and opportunities to diversify will flourish whilst tenants and smaller-scale farmers die out.
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