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Health and harmony: Defra’s pitch on the future for food, farming and the environment

Yesterday Defra published its consultation paper on the future of farming and land management policy in England. Few policy areas will have such a significant impact on the wildlife and countryside of England in the next decade and more.

February 2018

Farming and land management impacts on the environment in many and myriad ways, both positively and negatively. When making the case for change, the paper notes that agriculture has “…increased negative pressures on the environment through pollution and practices which lead to habitat and species loss”, and then goes onto to reference the costs this entails for society.

Its key observation though, and one that reflects the findings of the 2016 State of Nature report, is that these “…negative environmental effects do not reflect on the motivations of farmers but on the flawed system under which they operate.”

Having identified policy as the problem, and specifically the inefficient and ineffective Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), does the paper do enough to make sure that future policy will be the solution? Well broadly, yes, or it at least starts us off in the right direction.

The last time I wrote for this blog it was to coincide with the publication of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s proposals for a Sustainable Farming and Land Management policy for England, and there are many echoes of these proposals in yesterday’s consultation paper. First and foremost, Defra identify a guiding principle of public money for public goods, building from a regulatory baseline informed by the polluter pays principle. At its simplest, this means a reorientation of policy towards securing the things that society needs, but which the market does not provide – wildlife, clean water, beautiful landscapes – and toward a basic framework of ‘polluter pays, provider gets’. Compared to the untargeted subsidies that dominate the CAP, this should point to a radical shift in shape and purpose of future policies.

Defra also seem to have been convinced by our arguments that, of all the things that a future farming and land management policy could seek to do, environmental enhancement should be the primary focus, at least of public money. This will take the form of a future environmental land management system making up the ‘cornerstone’ of a future agriculture policy in England. As Defra’s stakeholder proposals annex notes, we were not alone in arguing for this, with the CLA and others also making the case.

Alongside the environment, Defra have identified improving animal welfare as a key job for public policy, through a mix of targeted payments, and further scope to raise the ‘regulatory baseline’. As you would expect, there is a lot in the paper too about improving productivity and the resilience of production, both broad objectives that we identified in our proposals last year. Defra’s rejection of interventionist, bureaucratic and potentially environmental damaging public risk management and insurance schemes is to be welcome, but it will be important that Defra make sure they progress efforts to improve the environment and productivity in tandem if they are to avoid incoherence in the future.

Other uncertainties persist, especially on the duration and nature of any transition, and the scale of funding available to future policies. About the latter, the paper is particularly silent, and we will be making strong arguments that significant increases in investment are needed if they are to deliver on the ambitions in this paper, and the earlier 25 Year Environment Plan.

But in the round, Defra’s paper takes us in the right direction, and heralds the beginning of a 10 week consultation that effectively fires the starting gun on a legislative and policy development process that will last for several years. As a partnership, Wildlife and Countryside Link will be responding to this consultation, and encouraging others to do the same.

Do take a look at the proposals, and respond online if you can – if you care about wildlife, the countryside and the future of farming, it may be the most important consultation you’ve ever engaged with.

Tom Lancaster, Vice-chair of Link's Agriculture Working Group and Senior Land Use Policy Officer, RSPB

Follow @tommlancaster and @Natures_Voice

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