England: Is agricultural reform on course?

This article first appeared on the Nature Friendly Farming Network website.

Nearly six years have passed since former Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove articulated a bold new vision for food, farming and land management in England with the release of “Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit”. How far are we from actualising this as reality?

Brexit, we were told, provided an unfrozen moment, allowing us to free ourselves from the perverse and inequitable Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). No longer constrained by EU bureaucracy, we could scrap a blunt subsidy which served to funnel vast amounts of money to the largest landowners, drive ecosystem decline, stifle innovation and stop new talent from entering the industry. The CAP was bad for farmers, taxpayers, consumers and the environment, and many of us in the industry knew it.

The case for change was strong and compelling. With ambition, vision and drive, we could be the first generation to hand over an environment in a better state than we found it. Attaining this laudable goal would require a shift away from false trade-offs between the environment, food security, public health and farm profitability to a truly integrated approach which recognises that nature and food production work hand in hand. As ineffective and inequitable area-based payments were to be phased out, we were promised a new scheme underpinned by natural capital principles that would properly value and pay for environmental improvement. Regulation would be reformed from a system synonymous with disproportionate, punitive enforcement to one that operated within an improved regulatory culture that would maintain standards by making sure that the polluter pays.

There was the acknowledgement that change would be challenging for some more than others. Particularly those who were located in some of the most remote, wild and iconic landscapes, which had been so dependent on area-based payments. But we were assured that these businesses stood to gain much in an era where a focus on biodiversity recovery, flood risk mitigation and carbon sequestration were put on an equal footing with food production. The transition period would be key, where we’d work together to develop a new system built on the evidence and collective experience of previous schemes.

The end goal was long-term sustainable land management, where farmers integrate the production of environmental goods into the heart of decision-making. By recognising the interdependencies between environmental improvement, food security and farm business resilience, the industry could move to a new world where we’d reap greater economic benefits alongside improved environmental, biodiversity and animal health outcomes.

Plenty of farmers bought into this vision, recognising that it was essential in moving the industry towards a better place while justifying public investment in farming for the long term. For many, previously overlooked by policies that focused on narrow outcomes, it represented an opportunity to gain from the diverse range of benefits their land could provide.

But compare where we are now to what was promised years ago, and it seems we have ended up with little more than a light-green status quo.

Repeating past mistakes & treading old ground
“Our aim is for public money to buy public goods. In 25 years time, we want cleaner air and water, richer habitats for more wildlife and an approach to agriculture and land use which puts the environment first.” Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit

The early promise for public money to buy public goods has been eroded to the point where it’s barely recognisable. Intense lobbying by those with an interest in business as usual has resulted in dilution and dampening down. The once guiding principle that good environmental management would lead to good outcomes for farming and food production has been lost, replaced by siloed solutions and a fixation on trade-offs. This regression in thinking has manifested itself in scheme design, resulting in a fragmented Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) dominated by low-ambition actions and unlimited free choice. This is despite a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that turning the tide on biodiversity loss, improving soil health and bolstering farm resilience requires numerous actions delivered in combination at minimum levels of ambition and scale. These design choices undermine the scheme’s ability to bolster farm business resilience and future prosperity by failing to harness the potential of improved natural capital to improve productivity and reduce input dependence. What’s most frustrating is that we’ve been here before, with Entry Level schemes that incurred significant costs with minimal returns for farm businesses or the environment.

Missed opportunities in threatened farm landscapes
“A clear vision for the uplands will be an important part of our agricultural policy.” Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit

With the ability to deliver a range of services that the public demands, from biodiversity recovery, carbon sequestration and flood mitigation, upland and marginal farming systems should stand to benefit from a shift to payments that seek to reward environmental land management. But the agriculture transition brought risks with it too. With minimal returns from food production, farms in these landscapes are dependent on public payments to maintain viability. This places them on a knife edge and faces two possible futures. One where the true value of environmental delivery is recognised and paid for, helping to support thriving upland businesses and rural economies. Versus another which fails to harness the wealth of opportunities found in these landscapes, resulting in the undesirable consequences of intensification and land abandonment.

A comprehensive vision for upland farms has yet to materialise, leaving many farms questioning their future. So far, the package of schemes is unfit for the purpose of harnessing nature’s potential or in properly valuing the public goods that these farms are well placed to provide. Farmers have been left with a fragmented and piecemeal offer, a far cry from the bespoke solutions that were promised. Many have been turned away from the most ambitious schemes which can work wonders for farms in these places, compounding the feeling that they are being left behind. In the last year alone, the income generated from land management schemes has increased by a measly four per cent for these farms, while it has doubled for farms in more productive landscapes.

Slipping standards
“A strong baseline will maintain and enhance important environmental, animal and plant health and animal welfare standards, backed by an integrated inspection and enforcement regime.” Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit

A strong, fair and well-understood regulatory baseline is a crucial component of a successful agricultural transition, creating a level playing field between farmers, a reference point for payments and contributing to the delivery of improved environmental, health and animal welfare outcomes. But bold commitments to improve the system have not been realised, as we stand on the verge of a weakened baseline. In January, some basic protections for soils, water and hedgerows will be lost, undermining previous claims that standards would be maintained. The failure to set out the baseline’s role in the farming transition has influenced the creation of scheme options which risk replicating previous regulations and good practice. Such inaction risks undermining the transition to more resilient, profitable land management while creating confusion and uncertainty for farm businesses.

No clear sense of where we’re going
Many of us supported the vision of Health and Harmony in the belief that it would be brought into reality through a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan. Instead, we’ve had to make do with piecemeal announcements, which only ever deal in the near future. On several occasions, plans have changed at the drop of a hat, undermining trust and confidence in the process. While an ambition to test, learn and adapt is a valuable endeavour, it must be set within a credible plan for the future. We urgently need a clear roadmap to provide a stronger sense of where we’re going, how we’re going to get there and the environmental outcomes we’re going to achieve. This is essential in providing the clarity and certainty that farmers need to invest in environmental land management in the long term.

Six years later and the principle of public money for public goods remains sound, representing the best way to get the best value from farming and our land. But where we are now represents a poor imitation of where we had hoped to go. With an updated Agricultural Transition Plan expected in the new year, Defra has a valuable opportunity to get the farming transition back on track to put environmental outcomes at the heart of government support. Let’s hope it can start to address the shortcomings experienced to date and realise the ambitious vision we were originally sold.

Read this article on the Nature Friendly Farming Network website

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