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Empower farmers to manage
land and water sustainably

Agricultural productivity relies on good quality soil and water. Farm management practices affect the quality of soil, the water cycle and consequently impact on the beautiful land we live in and the wildlife that depends on it. These important connections must be made by Defra’s year plan for food and farming, which needs to ensure sustainable soils and water in order to carry on delivering a viable and productive farming industry.

May 2016

Farming is a key part of all our lives, we depend on farmers for food in order to live each day. It’s also a key part of our environment. Farmers look after around 70 per cent of the UK’s land area, which means they greatly impact on, and are impacted by, our environment. Farming is one of the industries that is most vulnerable to aridity and flooding which are both predicted to increase as our climate changes. Yet farming can also be one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gases in the UK, and the cause of flooding and over abstraction of our water. The runoff of soil, pesticides and fertilisers into our valuable rivers and wetlands can reduce the quality of our waters and the range of wildlife that are able to survive in them.

We are not talking about either/or here. There are many “win-win” land management methods that can benefit land managers and the environment. A farmer would not argue with the benefit of keeping soil and fertiliser on the land rather than allowing it to run off into the water and there are cheap and easy methods of doing this, including growing cover crops and allowing field buffers to grow.

Many farmers do farm sensitively and they can show that these methods work and still allow productive and profitable business. However, a failure to make connections between our ability to farm productively and our long term farming and environmental sustainability exacerbates the difficulty farmers have in managing their land in this way. The frameworks that are meant to support farmers in sustainable land management are simply not robust enough. Not only are basic standards weak, they are not enforced. For example, rules to tackle soil erosion only kick in after the fact, rather than taking preventative action. Perverse incentives and payments encourage short term thinking and high input measures (pesticides and fertilisers) rather than paying farmers for public goods and long term sustainable, environment friendly management.

Land managers are stewards of our countryside; they need to be empowered to take action to ensure that the management of their land is sustainable in the long term to benefit farmers now and in the future. This has consequences for our ability to feed ourselves in years to come, to buffer the effects of climate change and to ensure our water and environment is full of life and providing many benefits and a wealth of sheer enjoyment. The Government’s 25 year plan for food and farming needs to respect and protect the environment and the role the plan has to play in delivering Government environmental and societal commitments.

Hannah Freeman

Chair of Link's Blueprint for Water Group

Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find WWT on Twitter at @WWTSlimbridge

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