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We need a resilient and dynamic farming industry

When it comes to farming and the environment it feels like Governments have been tinkering at the margins for a long time. Public money paid to farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has done a decent job in recent years helping farmers to make field edges places that can support wildlife: improving hedgerows, field margins and encouraging wildlife...

August 2016

Yet look to the field itself, to the expanse of land and its soil. Across far too many fields there is barely evidence of life. The abundance of nature that farmland used to, and still could, support - has been depleted. Soil biodiversity and organic matter barely gets consideration, though they are crucial to sustaining the food chain, recycling nutrients, locking up carbon, filtering and storing water.

Industrialised farming has become increasingly specialised with fewer crops, more monocultures and loss of livestock from the countryside. Farms are growing in size and smaller farms disappearing: we have lost more than 30,000 during the past decade alone. With fewer people farming, fewer working the land and farmsteads converted to homes or business parks, farming is less and less at the heart of rural life. And the public are less linked than ever to the land that feeds them. Without connection why should people care about farms or farmers or what they do?

Farming policy, too, has long been stuck on the political margins. Defra, the Government department devoted to the environment, farming, food and rural matters, has itself seemed a rural backwater. Savaged by austerity cuts it struggles to get its views heard across Government or in the Treasury. And with farm policy largely tied to the CAP, which has been cumbersome, unarguably bureaucratic and slow to change, the Government has been unable or unwilling to tackle the problems farming faces.

Brexit has changed all that. For the first time in 40 years there is a chance to shape a farming policy to match our needs. The goal must be to create a resilient, financially stable and dynamic farming industry, which works for the wider community as well as for the environment.

Ultimately, through Government and public funding, we need to reward farmers for delivering public benefits that the market won’t pay for: wildlife, space for recreation, landscape, clean rivers, reducing flood risk and tackling climate change. We can’t rely on farmers’ benevolence and voluntary action on the environment when they face tough markets and a fight to survive.


Farming now needs to:

• find a new balance with nature to restore the health, abundance and variety of the natural environment
• reduce risks and costs to itself, particularly from climate change
• make soils more resilient and able to withstand drought or extreme rain without erosion or crop failure

In order to achieve this we need more farms, farmers and greater diversity in the sector, not fewer globally competitive ones. We need to find ways to encourage new people with new ideas into the industry and enable them to progress from farm to farm. We need more horticulture to make up our national gap, stronger connections to communities and support for local and short supply chains to provide food connected to seasons, plot and place. And to this we need to add further diversity on the farm: in fields and what is cropped and how fields are managed. Government must provide the backbone to this transformation, to measure what matters on the land and to put in place policy and a framework that rewards the long-term production of a healthy resilient countryside with abundant nature.

Some of these ideas are explored in a new report from CPRE: New Model Farming: resilience through diversity.

Graeme Willis

Senior rural policy campaigner, CPRE

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