A year ago today, the NFU drove their tractors to Westminster to ask MPs to back British farming. Plantlife and other conservation groups were there, but in a different room, raising the alarm about the declining State of Nature.
Two parallel conversations, each vying for attention from MPs and the media.
Stop for a moment; imagine a time when this could be a joint occasion, with the NFU and conservationists celebrating farming’s critical role in looking after a healthy environment and producing high quality food. Why should that be so hard to imagine?
Producing food is important - as ‘ecosystem services’ go, it’s one of the best. It sounds obvious, but we don’t say it often enough when we talk about farming and the environment. We all need a thriving farming sector in the UK that produces good quality food, now and in future. It’s more than simply putting food on our plates - it is woven into our landscape and culture, our society and economy. It’s essential to the public goods and services that benefit us all – wildlife, clean air and water, climate change action and flood risk management.
So, yes, I ‘back British farming’ - but not any British farming.
I back British farming that rewards farmers fairly for their work, supports rural communities and sticks to high environmental and animal welfare standards.
I back British farming that’s part of a colourful countryside, brimming with the magnificent diversity of our native plants and fungi, supporting the busy lives of insects, birds and other creatures, and open for all to enjoy.
I back British farming that’s part of a fair and sustainable food system, where markets give a fair price, everyone has access to healthy, affordable food, and waste and packaging are minimised.
Farmers need our backing – particularly those on the smaller mixed farms that are disappearing at an alarming rate and in the face of uncertainties over Brexit, ever-changing policy and legislation, global markets, new technology and extreme weather in a changing climate.
But, all too often, farmers and conservationists are pitched against each other in the media, apparently irreconcilable adversaries.
This “farming versus environment” debate is holding us all back at a critical moment. It ignores the vast swathes of common ground between many farmers and nature conservationists. It excludes those farmers who are wildflower lovers and countryside stewards as well as food producers and business owners.
As post-Brexit policy develops, we have the chance of a lifetime to reclaim that common ground – with a shared language and shared expertise. We need a collective vision for farming that is truly sustainable - environmentally, economically and socially. Then farmers and conservationists can go to Westminster together and ask MPs to help make it happen.
So if the NFU asks us to “Back British Farming”, let’s say yes – and then talk about ‘what’ and ‘how’. The prize could be a system that works for farming and the environment for decades to come – whatever Brexit brings.
Senior Policy Officer, Plantlife
Member of Link's Agriculture Working Group
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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