If someone brings up nature it is all too easy to think of rolling green fields, neatly ordered rows of crops, and cattle chewing away gormlessly oblivious to their fate. It is an image of cultivation cultivated into the national memory as what the British country side is, how is should be and always has been. An image of harmony and equilibrium in situ. However, sadly this is not the case. Scratching beneath the surface shows this landscape to be an industry largely kept on life support by subsidies funded by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), over-production and environmental degradation. With Brexit also looming, the government has guaranteed to mimic CAP subsidies until 2022 but the future for farming is looking uncertain. Environmental challenges are still being ignored by the farming community and this is going to have to change. The government and DEFRA have announced a reform of farming subsidy in the future and we will discuss this in this blog. It goes without saying farming is a vital part of a nation’s ability to feed itself and should be protected to a certain extent for reasons that are even more obvious in the wake of a global pandemic it the resulting shutdown.
Here are a few basic points on farming in the UK to know before we continue:
- £3.5bn per year is handed out as subsidies to UK farmers and landowners every year and contributes £10 billion back to the economy. 
- 71% of land is involved in agriculture, 19% for arable crops (wheat etc.) and just 1% for horticultural crops (fruit and veg).
- Around 60% of food consumed in the UK is produced by UK farmers.
So, what’s the problem? £3bn not that much money in the grand scheme of things and national food production is fairly high considering. However, there are some more worrying statistics that raise questions over the costs of farming beyond the financial aspects that tend to get disproportionately focused on. From an environmental and societal perspective what is the cost of farming in the UK?
- 97% of land in the UK is privately owned. Although this isn’t solely an issue for agriculture it takes up a significant chunk of it as well as having a great impact in environmental terms.
- Since the 1930’s 97% of wild flower meadowland has been lost in the UK.
- Biodiversity in the UK has gone into almost complete free fall with 41% of species in decline since the 1970’s.
- 1/8 of subsidies already go to environmentally friendly causes in the UK.
- Publicly accessible land is becoming over-crowded and worn-out as a result of overuse.
There is a narrative, largely pushed by lobbies like the National Farmers Union (NFU) that farmers are custodians of the land maintaining it, caring for it and improving it. While there are small improvements here and there the overall trend is towards degradation. We are on the edge of a climate crisis and perspectives need to become longer term than the budget-to-budget survival attitude that is currently in place. Subsidies have become the backbone of the farming industry which arguably has left many businesses entirely dependent on them encouraging over-production in the pursuit of ‘cheap food’. But with the public saying they are largely prepared to pay more for food, why is this still the focus of agricultural subsidies decades after they were formulated?
The government has announced it will ring-fence subsidies until 2022 and has announced an ambitious reform of agricultural subsidies beyond that. In a change in tack we are seeing the government encouraging farms to deliver ‘public goods’ over the intensive land cultivation focused model that the CAP has encouraged. But what are public goods? It sounds good but it also sounds vague and non-committal without further scrutiny.
What are public goods?
Farming is almost entirely a private enterprise. Farmers are self-employed business owners selling directly to consumers. While it is not unheard of for subsidies to be offered in the private sphere the extremely high level of subsidies in farming is unusual to say the least. Although it is public money being given to farmers the CAP has removed the domestic politicisation of subsidies for almost 50-years. Having the rules come from above the government has shifted any blame away from domestic governments until recently. Now with Brexit looming a layer of protection has been removed from farmers subsidies and brought them back into the remit of the national government.
When looking at food prices increases, soil degradation and wildlife collapse, the CAP has undoubtedly been a complete disaster for the UK on several fronts. Now it is time to look at how we can restructure subsidies to produce public goods alongside food. A study in 2018 undertaken by DEFRA highlighted some innovative ways that agriculture could be reformed in order to achieve a return of public goods for the public investment. A few of the key points:
- Climate change mitigation (through carbon storage and reduction).
- Biodiversity and wildlife encouragement measures.
- Water usage management and water quality improvements.
- Recreational access to currently private land.
- Compensation (such at woodlands) to offset environmental damage elsewhere.
Reforming subsidies paid currently predominantly based on land area to being conditional on combining these points isn’t going to be straight forward. Especially considering that subsidies have gone from the realm of largely untouchable in domestic UK politics to being at the mercy of whoever is in power for the next five years it’s going to be a struggle. Farmers (at least ones I have spoken to day to day), lobbying groups and others are immediately resistant to any hint of changing the system. There are even advice pages online on how to stop rights of way developing on your land. This isn’t to say that all farmers are willingly ignoring the impending risks to their industry and the country’s natural capital as a whole but there is certainly a case saying their voices are drowned out by the short-termist camp.
The aim of this week’s blog isn’t to villainise farmers. Farmers are a product of the economic climate they have found themselves in over the past 50 years. We all like to see small local businesses thrive and farms are almost always just that. A family run business trying to make ends meet.
How to approach reform
There is a tightrope to balance on. We need action immediately but it’s important also not to destroy the positive elements of the agricultural industry. In the UK agriculture is comprised of mainly small independent farmers. This means that they have the knowledge and understanding of their land not to mention a love of it unrivalled. This is a massive advantage to the cause.
The CAP fails to appreciate the great ranges of climates, land-types, soil-types and wildlife that farmers can manage all on one farm. This failing of the CAP has led to inefficient techniques forcing farmers to muck-spread when not optimal for example. If a subsidy system was sympathetic to more localised issues and could be tailored to the needs of the local area it would be easier to encourage farmers to change their ways. For example, it doesn’t make sense giving a farm a subsidy for tree planting if it predominantly farms on peatlands as trees dry out the soil and would result in carbon being released into the atmosphere. But it does make sense to encourage valley farmers in say the Lake District to plant trees in the valley bottoms to offset the increasingly common flooding that is wreaking havoc downstream to towns and other farmlands.
Another strategy is to promote this greener future in schools. Urbanisation has definitely won over rural communities. Brain drain is rife and underfunding of infrastructure both social and financial is all too common in rural areas. We need to encourage schools to take their children out of the cities to understand how vital these ecosystems and businesses balancing together will be for the future. Food isn’t some sterile entity that just shows up in supermarkets, or at least it shouldn’t be. Bugs are common, dirt is normal and understanding the need for a better environment is integral to keep increased climate change at bay. After all climate change isn’t limited to localised areas and cities are going to be increasingly vulnerable to flooding in the future.
To be able to achieve a greater level of education it is important for people to see what is happening. Land access in the UK is incredibly limited. The Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged many more people to take holidays within the UK rather than abroad. While this is fantastic news it is important that we open up larger spaces for a growing population to enjoy. Providing subsidies for ‘woodland walks’ and ‘heathland hikes’ could be a viable way to encourage carbon sinks while encouraging wildlife and human life to interact in a positive way. There can be no doubt that this would benefit society at large and ease pressure on local infrastructure in national parks to which people flock.
Just to reiterate this blog is not an attack on farming. It’s hopefully adding to the discussion that desperately needs to come to the fore of the agricultural world. The numbers can’t be ignored much longer and with the opportunity to reform subsidies due to the loss of the CAP the time is perfect to begin this reform. We need nature, we need farming but we need access to our own country as well. It is going to be vital for farmers to engage in these conversations early to make sure their needs are considered in the planning of an environmentally friendly future for the country. There are so many ways to make sure farmers have a comfortable life encouraging nature while producing food and at the same time opening up the countryside for everyone to enjoy. In the post-Covid-19 era this has become ever more apparent. Humanity cannot simply keep telling the environment how it is going to be because the environment is going to strike back, and hard. There is no level of subsidies that will be able to bring us back once we are past the point of no-return.
In brief conclusion supporting local businesses is always good but it’s got to be done in the right way. There has to be give and take between the public and the agricultural industry. The next question will be how to regulate the implementation of any measures moving forwards and will the government put its money where its mouth is.