What should an agriculture policy designed for public benefit look like?
This post is by Jonathan Baker, senior land use policy adviser at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).
In these fevered times, environmentalists and farmers find themselves in agreement about much. There is an established cross sector consensus on the importance of the UK developing trade policies that do not export environmental problems, the need for a substantial and long term budget to support rural areas, and – albeit grudgingly in some instances – the necessity of moving to an agricultural policy that focuses on providing public benefits in return for public money.
On this last point, the government is starting to develop specific proposals. And this is where the tricky work begins.
Civil society, land managers and the government must now move on from principles and platitudes to think about what an agricultural policy that effectively and efficiently provides public benefits looks like.
The CLA has been considering that question for some time and has launched a proposal for how future land management schemes should work in England.
A Land Management Contract (LMC) is a major change in terms of ambition, scope and design. By publishing this report, we want to show that land managers are enthused by the possibility of radically reforming current agricultural policy. But we also want to highlight that the success of future schemes should not be taken for granted. We have to get the design and delivery right if we are to realise the opportunities. We also need to provide farmers with the right environment, meaning a trade deal with the EU and not opening our markets to producers of lower standards.
Designing future land use policy
As a starting point, we want to move away from a system of entitlements to one where land managers are commercial providers of public benefits, with the government as the buyer. In talking to land managers, experts, NGOs and reviewing the evidence, we have identified some of the characteristics that will determine whether future schemes are successful.
1. Including more than environmental land management
Earlier this year in Setting the standard Green Alliance set out initial thoughts for shifting to sustainable food production. The report argued that “a new scheme has to avoid being seen solely in terms of environmental benefits that happen alongside rather than as part of farming”. This is completely right.
Seventy per cent of the UK’s land is farmed. Although there are strong arguments that, with land managers’ support, we should create more wild land, the majority of our habitats and species are and will remain, agricultural. Therefore, future public benefit schemes must look beyond the scope of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which excluded forestry and downplayed heritage, public health and water management.
Future policy should be about empowering rural businesses to deliver their full potential of public benefits. This means that, as well as promoting environmental delivery, land managers should be encouraged to adopt farming and woodland management practices that improve soil and air quality, restore our historic environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve animal health and welfare. All of these activities are demonstrable public benefits with good returns on investment for the public.
2. Getting the incentives right
There is a tendency to assume that when the government removes the direct support that accounts for 61 per cent of the average farmers’ income, farmers will be desperate for funding and accept any offer from the government.
This is naïve. In the new world of ‘self-reliant farming’, public benefits will only be provided where the financial return is equal to or greater than it is for producing food. In the future, farmers will not have the luxury of undertaking loss making activities as their profit margins will be under more pressure than they are now. Green Alliance is responsive to this risk, suggesting that “a new scheme that engaged fewer farmers than intended, could lead to environmental oases surrounded by areas of intensified production”.
The scale of the challenge our countryside faces will only be addressed if we can engage wholeheartedly with the majority of farmers and land managers. The LMC has the potential to achieve this by making the provision of a high level of public benefits a commercially rational decision for land managers in England. This is done through a practical assessment of payment rates and through a premium payment to land managers that encourages them to aim for and exceed a transformative threshold of delivery.
3. Competent administration
For those unfamiliar with the evergreen woes of administering the Common Agricultural Policy, ‘competent administration’ may seem to be a low bar for future schemes. The reality is that unless the government is a reliable partner, farmers will stay away. What this means is paying land managers on time for services rendered and meeting basic service standards.
4. A sufficient budget with long term security
Maintaining and restoring our natural environment is not going to be cheap. As others have noted, society’s demands on our land are near infinite and costly. If the government is serious about being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state, it must commit to maintaining the current spend in real terms. In England, this is around £2.2 billion a year.
As we move to the next stage of deciding what we want England’s countryside to look like, the CLA will continue to work across sectors to manage the risks as we see them and make the most of the opportunities. The LMC is the start of that discussion and we look to forward to contributions from others.
The CLA is the membership organisation for landowners, farmers and businesses. Between them, CLA members own or manage more than 10 million acres of rural land across England and Wales.