After the waves of uncertainty produced by the Brexit vote I was encouraged this week to see the output from the National Farmers Union (NFU) consultation with their membership on the future of farming after Brexit. It is, as they have pointed out, the biggest consultation exercise they have ever carried out. This makes sense given that leaving the European Union will be one of the most defining events for farming, and for nature, in living memory.
The consultation was a big undertaking, it went out to all 55,000 NFU members and asked them to think about what they wanted to see the government do for food and farming once we leave the EU. After spending eight weeks asking for their members’ input, the consultation results were discussed by the NFU Council, its highest governing body. In a Council statement, NFU President Meurig Raymond said that farming should work to protect both the environment and deliver good food. He adds that the vision from the farming industry is of farming that delivers “improved health, wealth and environment for the British people”.
Against a backdrop of concerns about a race to the bottom on standards, I really welcome the recognition that any new policy should not only protect the environment but also deliver improvements. This thinking really chimes with the vision set out in Farming Fit for the Future which Wildlife and Countryside Link produced before the referendum. While the policy mechanisms for delivering the vision will change as we leave the Common Agricultural Policy behind, I believe that the vision we outlined remains as relevant. Farmers are integral to this, and we want to work with them to make sure leaving the European Union works for farming and nature.
It is heartening to see that the focus of the consultation response was not just on the needs of the industry, vital though these are, but also the needs of the British people. This is really important when talking about future decisions on how public policy is made and ultimately how the public’s money is spent. There is now a real opportunity to build on the successes of agri-environment schemes and secure a better future for our countryside, the people who live and work in it , those who enjoy spending time in it, and for the wildlife that makes it so special.
I can also see common ground with the initial post-brexit thinking we published in partnership earlier this month setting out a future direction for environment, farming and rural development policies. The public want and need a lot from the countryside, not only the food on their plates but also clean water, abundant nature and protection from flooding. This may seem a tall order but there are so many great examples that show what can be achieved, including the networks of demonstration farms across the country, the farmers we and other Link members work in partnership with and indeed our own arable farm in Cambridgeshire where we have seen a three-fold increase in farmland birds in the last ten years. We can demonstrate that it's not a choice between food and nature – we can have both.
I hope that the positive sentiments emerging from this consultation will be the springboard we need to foster real collaboration in developing a new food, farming and environment policy.
Farmers, including NFU members, are rightly proud of the conservation work they do on their farms and the respect this brings them from the public. But, however inspiring these examples are we cannot shy away from the fact that more needs to be done; the results of the recent State of Nature report clearly show this. We need a system which makes it easy for all farmers to have both vibrant businesses and fantastic wildlife on their farms.
The NFU say they will produce a more detailed policy paper in the New Year and I look forward to reading it. The output so far I think, shows that there is real common ground on which farmers and environmental organisations can work together to ensure a successful future for food, farming and nature.
Land use policy officer, RSPB
Find Harry on Twitter @HarryGreenTweet
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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