Agriculture at a crossroads… again

cowsThis post is by Tom Lancaster, senior land use policy officer at RSPB.

If you do a Google search for ‘agriculture at a crossroads’ you’ll see that it’s a well used term. But when considering the implications of Brexit for farming and land use, it feels more relevant now than ever before.

Leaving the European Union will be one of the most defining events for farming and the environment in living memory. Whilst there are many potential pitfalls, the UK’s exit from the EU also presents an opportunity to rethink how the country can secure more sustainable farming and land use for people and the environment in the years and decades ahead.

Much of the focus since the referendum has been on how to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). With over £3 billion dedicated to the policy each year in the UK, it has become totemic for critics of the EU. Held up as wasteful, inefficient and bureaucratic, it still absorbs around 40 per cent of the EU budget, or around €1 billion per week.

Some will say this spending secures cheap food, but the evidence is lacking. In fact, the CAP is as likely to increase the cost of food, as demonstrated by the OECD’s estimates that EU agricultural policies lead to transfers of over €20 billion per year from consumers to producers, as well as more conventional transfers from taxpayers to producers. It does seem unreasonable that the public are expected to pay for food through their taxes, having already done so at the till.

Target public funding at public goods
There is though, a compelling case for providing public funding to farmers and land managers where the market fails. They control over three quarters of the land in the UK, and society depends upon them for environmental goods and services that only they can provide.

RSPB has long maintained that public money invested in agriculture and land management should be targeted at looking after these public goods, i.e. maintaining a beautiful, wildlife rich landscape, restored habitats that provide clean and slow water, and mitigation and adaptation to climate change. With Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s aim that we will be the first generation to improve the natural environment, targeting public funding in this way is more relevant today than ever.

This case is bolstered when we look at the evidence of the benefits that would flow from shifting public expenditure in this way. The most recent and comprehensive assessment of costs for environmental land management commitments across the UK is from a 2009 study, commissioned by the Land Use Policy Group, which estimated just under £2 billion per year is needed, a figure that is likely to be a significantly higher today.

Investing in natural environment is beneficial
Now, unless the Treasury has a very big sofa somewhere, more than £2 billion is hardly pocket change. What we do know, though, is that investing in the natural environment delivers significant returns. A 2011 study found that public spending of £111 million in England and Wales for improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) yielded benefits of £956 million, which is a cost benefit ratio of 8.6:1. Another study suggests that every pound spent on England’s Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme leads to a net economic benefit in the local economy of £2.23.

The best evidence for what could be achieved by shifting spending toward environmental objectives is Defra’s own evidence paper and impact assessment prepared to inform the most recent round of CAP reform in England. This shows that transferring just 15 per cent of untargeted CAP Pillar I subsidies to Pillar II (which includes agri-environment schemes) would have realised net benefits of between £2,760 and £3,333 million, against a cost of £100 million in lost production. If this is the return from a 15 per cent transfer, imagine the value for money that could be gained from increasing these sorts of investments.

Clearly, it’s not all about the money. Post-Brexit policies across the UK will also need to ensure high standards, foster innovation and support farmers to be more resilient. Defra’s 25 year plan for food and farming, with the 25 year plan for the environment, must set out an ambitious roadmap for policy reform in England that achieves all of this and more.

Given the benefits that can be achieved by supporting farmers to provide public goods, and the scale of need that exists, there is a strong case for making more sustainable farming and land use the core focus of future policies. Working as part of the Greener UK coalition and existing networks, such as Wildlife and Countryside Link, we are going to be making this case strongly over the coming months as the debate progresses.

Under a Greener UK pillar of work on food and farming, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, CPRE, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Friends of the Earth, National Trust, Plantlife, RSPB, RSPCA, Salmon and Trout Conservation UK, Soil Association, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust,  WWF, WWT and Zoological Society of London are working together to promote sustainable farming and land use.

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