What’s the post Brexit future for farming in the UK?

8062314639_373504dea0_kThis post is by Green Alliance’s chair, Dame Fiona Reynolds.

For the many people who care about the beauty of our countryside and the natural environment, this is the big question of our time. We know the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a net negative for the environment, yet we also know that the majority of the UK’s rural landscapes will continue to be farmed. So now is the time to get some anchors in the ground about what should be the principles underpinning a new farming and food production policy, even if it’s too early to put the details in place.

In fact, we are desperate for some guiding principles for our whole approach to Brexit. We’ve heard that existing environmental protection policies will be safeguarded by translating EU policies into UK law, which is welcome but not enough. The real question is whether protecting the environment will be an obligation to be met in a de minimis way, or at the heart of the whole Brexit proposition. And the latter is not as idealistic as it might sound.

A vision for the UK as a clean, green country that it’s good to do business with across the world is a compelling, even exciting one. We could be cutting edge, trading in green technology and products, innovation and skills at the highest level. Our new industrial strategy could promote a low carbon, energy efficient future and the sustainable, cyclical, efficient management of natural resources. We could aim to be agile, innovative and smart at decision making and regulation. And our commitment to a high quality environment in town and country could attract inward investment, green businesses and tourism, as well as providing great places to live and work. It could add up to an attractive proposition from which to launch the new UK PLC.  But we’d have to mean it, and that means radical change.

So what would being a clean, green Britain mean for the future of our natural environment? I’d suggest the following principles:

  • we must ensure the sustainable management of our soils; current practices mean we’re losing over two million tonnes of topsoil every year; by a mixture of regulation and incentive we must place protecting soil quality at the heart of new farming and land use policies;
  • we must look at rural land use as a whole and in a much more integrated way; the CAP has almost nothing to say about trees and woodlands or the management of water, yet these are central to rural land use and the delivery of public benefit;
  • the majority of land will be farmed, so a new farming system needs to optimise farming’s multiple products: the production of healthy food, looking after nature, landscape and cultural heritage, providing public access, and integrating water and woodland management with farming; this means a ‘sharing’ not ‘sparing’ approach over most of our land area;
  • we should better connect people with the source of their food and ensure transparent supply chains in the delivery of good, healthy food from farm to fork;
  • our new farm policy should be simpler and easier to implement at national level, with appropriate incentives and requirements to ensure farmers meet public benefit objectives set at regional and local levels.

While this is all easier said than done, we’ve learned a lot from implementing the CAP about what drives farmers’ behaviour and what’s needed to protect our soils, habitats and landscapes for the long term. Over the past twenty years, ‘green’ farming schemes of various kinds, involving collaboration between farmers, National Parks, local authorities, charities and land managers like big estates and water companies, have shown us what works and how principles translate into practice on the ground.

We’ve also learned that we need resources to deliver public benefits, so the level of funding will be key. If, as seems likely, we will be managing with less than the £2.8 billion currently spent via the CAP, we will need to develop new sources of income, including from new markets in environmental goods, as shown by the collaborative work between Green Alliance and the National Trust.

Amid so much uncertainty we could be worried. But this is also the best chance we’ll get to shape change that will improve our health and well-being, and the relationship between town and country, for the good of the farming community and rural areas, and the environment we depend on. Now is the time to draw on our knowledge and experience to develop a new system to support farming and food production that is simpler, more transparent and better at delivering the multiple benefits farming provides for society.

Under a Greener UK pillar of work on environment, food, farming and rural development, the National Trust, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and WWF UK have together established principles which include ensuring public benefit and greater coherence with wider policy.

[Image: Dexter cattle relax by the footpath to Forestside from Rowlands Castle in West Sussex, courtesy of Anguskirk from Flickr Creative Commons]

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