Twitter LinkedIn

Stewards of land and water

Water quality is very sensitive to the practices of farmers. Hannah Freeman lays out how farmers can be encouraged to make decisions that not only look after public goods, but also make good business sense.

April 2018

The British public, myself included, want to eat British, but this does not necessarily mean that we should farm everything that the British public want to eat. Our climate simply wasn’t made for it. We can manipulate our climate to some degree through poly tunnels and irrigation, but the question is, should we? Should we be growing water thirsty crops such as potatoes in areas of the UK which get less annual rainfall than South Sudan? Fifty-five per cent of potato and vegetable production is currently in catchments defined by the Environment Agency as being ‘over-abstracted’. Overall nearly a quarter of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted (too much water is being taken out of them to maintain healthy systems and wildlife).

All the chemicals that we put on our fields and crops to increase yield and reduce pests and disease are often applied in quantities or situations which result in them running off the fields and into the water courses. Livestock can also be a source of pollution, poaching river banks and resulting in the run off of huge quantities of antibiotics. Diffuse pollution from agriculture (pollution which is within legal limits but cumulatively has a major impact on our water quality) is currently a causative factor in 26% of our water bodies not reaching good quality status.

We need good quality food, grown by British farmers, but this doesn’t have to trash our environment. There are many economic, good land management practices out there which help nature thrive. This chance to change agricultural policy is our chance make these practices the norm, not the best-case exception.

However, we need a strong regulatory baseline. Farmers who are going above and beyond what all farmers should be doing can be supported, and not brought down by farmers who aren’t meeting those basic good land-management requirements. In order to do this, regulations need to be enforced. I don’t want to overburden our farmers with bureaucracy, and I do believe there is a role for earned recognition. However, if our regulators only manage to visit half our farms every year we need to ensure they cover the areas they need to cover and are provided with the information to understand whether or not baseline good management is being met. For example, a visit in the summer is unlikely to show visual evidence of whether rules around frozen ground and wet weather have been met. We must incentivise farmers to meet these baseline standards and then to go further. There should be help available to improve, alongside serious consequences of failure to improve. Baseline standards must be being met before further payments can be given. An outcomes-focused approach to payments for public goods which ensure additional benefit to the baseline standards could help.

In addition, payments for public goods could be used to create fantastic areas of habitat for wildlife, whilst delivering many additional benefits. For example, paying farmers to put in constructed wetlands: these can treat and hold back water, and create habitat for wildlife such as pollinators. We should be making such opportunities for farmers too good to refuse, not just through adequate funding but through independent advice, learning and training so that farmers know what the benefits mean to them. It is one thing for a farmer to be paid to flood a meadow, to reduce flood risk downstream and to benefit nature, but if in flooding that meadow he avoids any other flooding on his land, and keeps the meadow fruitful through diversification, it starts to make good business sense.

The health of our aquatic environment is highly dependent on the management of the land surrounding it. We need farmers to work together to champion good management, so that nature and farming can thrive.

Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer, WWT

Follow @freeman_hannah & @WWTWorldwide

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