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Sustainable Farming and Land Use Policy
essential for ‘Brand Britain’

As the Secretary of State stands up to speak at the Oxford Farming Conference in early January, she will be the first UK politician for over forty years to set out a vision for farming and the environment outside the constraints of the Common Agricultural Policy.

December 2016

On 14th September 2016, Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State of the Environment said:

“The decision to leave the EU also means, of course, that we have the opportunity to look again at the ways we work with farmers and landowners to improve our environment.”

There seems to be universal agreement that the Common Agricultural Policy isn’t the European Union’s finest achievement. Held up by successive UK Governments as the classic example of EU bureaucracy gone mad, there was a certain amount of comfort in railing against the CAP, safe in the knowledge that it was unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. Like a belligerent and slightly cantankerous relative that no one really likes, but everyone knows they have to accommodate.

Well, Brexit has changed all of that. Under no scenario that people are talking about does the CAP continue to apply in a post-Brexit world – not Norway or Switzerland, Turkey or Canada.

So Andrea Leadsom will be the first Secretary of State since Joseph Godber stalked the halls of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), or Geoffrey Rippon occupied the Department of the Environment to think up her own policy. Admittedly, she may only be thinking about England, and not the UK – pending the outcome of our current constitutional confusion – but this is still a remarkably privileged position to be in, considering the impact that decisions made now could have for the environment and agriculture years down the line.

Given all this then, many will be looking to her speech on the 4th January in Oxford for any clues as to the direction of policy under this Westminster Government.

The ambition to be the “...first generation to leave our environment better than we found it...” should permeate everything that the Government does, and now is the time to start fleshing out what that looks like in practice. Given the importance of agriculture to this ambition, Oxford is the perfect place to set out concrete signals that the environment will be at the heart of any future farming and land use policy. If we are to meet the generational challenge that has been set, we will need to significantly scale up the level and ambition of environmental enhancement compared to that achieved through the CAP.

Better environmental stewardship is also central to building the ‘Brand Britain’ that Ministers have talked about, and this goes beyond the natural and historic environment. As Lord Gardiner says so succinctly, “...we at Defra are remarking to ourselves...the huge importance of animal welfare standards. We think this is an essential part of brand Britain.”

This suggests that the Government views high standards as central to their vision for food, farming and the environment. If horse meat scandals and concerns about campylobacter aren’t to undermine efforts to sell ‘Brand Britain’ to the rest of the world, maintaining and improving these standards - and the regulation needed to enforce them - will be central to the success of future policies. Recognition of this by the Secretary of State would send a strong signal that leaving the EU does not mean lower standards.

Perhaps the strongest signal that Andrea Leadsom could give though would be in the name of a policy. We don’t just need a farming policy. Any policy ‘brand’ will need to reinforce the ‘Brand Britain’ that Ministers have made so central to their vision of the future.

So even if her speech in Oxford is light on detail – understandable perhaps, given the ongoing uncertainty – a clear commitment to building a Sustainable Farming and Land Use policy would be a clear statement of intent for the years ahead, and the 25 year journey we’re about to set out on.

Tom Lancaster

Senior Agriculture Policy Officer, RSPB

Find me on Twitter @tommlancaster

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.