MPs debate future agriculture policy post-Brexit

Today MPs will discuss the future of agricultural policy after the UK leaves the European Union. We, along with RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts, have outlined our views ahead of today’s Westminster Hall debate.

In brief we’re calling for…

  • Public money for public benefits: Farmers and land managers to be properly rewarded for the vital role they play in managing our countryside, helping us adapt to climate change, and enhancing biodiversity.
  • A collaborative approach: A common framework, co-developed and co-owned between the UK Government and Devolved Administrations.
  • Effective regulation which safeguards the environment: Any future payment system should be underpinned by a strong legislative baseline.
  • An ambitious timeline and transition: Given the urgent challenges facing our environment, the forthcoming Command Paper ahead of the Agriculture Bill, should set out an ambitious timeline for moving to a new system of support.

Highland cattle conservation grazing above the village of Malham, Yorkshire Dales National Park ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The need for change

Across the UK, farmers do invaluable work maintaining our natural and historic environment. But the current system of payment to farmers under the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) doesn’t do enough to recognise this.

Changes in agricultural practices, driven historically by CAP, continue to be the biggest driver of biodiversity decline across the UK. Numbers of farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970. Soil degradation in England and Wales costs £1.2 billion per year. Agriculture also accounts for a tenth of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.

As we prepare to leave the EU there’s an opportunity to reverse these trends, and develop a new policy that supports the vital role farmers and land managers can play in enhancing the countryside, and restoring the natural environment.

Producing high quality food will always to be central for farmers and land managers, but they also have a crucial part to play in improving biodiversity, protecting vulnerable natural resources (such as soil) upon which our economy depends, as well as caring for our landscape and heritage, and helping address growing challenges like climate change and flooding.

We’re calling for the flawed CAP to be replaced with a system that properly recognises farmers who are providing public benefits, whilst unlocking new sources of funding to make it both profitable and rewarding to manage land sustainably and build resilience.

Our proposal

Our organisations estimate that the cost of securing environmental benefits associated with land management justify spending of at least £2.3 billion per year, suggesting the total CAP budget of £3bn should be retained, but refocused on public goods that only farmers and land managers can provide.

Our proposal provides a strong justification for continued, long-term public investment in the sector that delivers value for money to the taxpayer. However, whilst public funding will remain critical in the long term, there will be a need for securing additional, complementary private finance.

What are public goods?

Public goods are goods and services that would not otherwise be provided by markets, including:

– Protecting, restoring and enhancing biodiversity
– restoring vulnerable natural resources such as soil upon which our economy depends
– providing clean water
– caring for our landscape and heritage
– helping address growing challenges like climate change and flooding

It’s good to see the recently released 25 Year Environment Plan propose a replacement of the current Basic Payment Scheme “with a system of public money for public goods”, with environmental enhancement recognised as ‘the principal public good’.

A common framework needed

Environmental issues do not respect borders, and steps to address environmental objectives need collaboration across the UK.

Any new system must include a common framework co-developed and co-owned between the UK Government and Devolved Administrations, to replace the framework, or aspects of it, currently provided by the CAP and relevant EU institutions.

The evidence provided by our research suggests that the distribution of funds across the UK should be allocated via objective criteria associated with need, and not the Barnett formula.

The UK has international environmental commitments and will need to be held to account for progress towards these. This requires funding to be distributed across the four UK countries in such a way that enables these commitments to be met. If the Barnett formula were applied, there would be a significant imbalance in funding and shortfall of funding in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Effective regulation must underpin a future payment system

Any future payment system must be underpinned by a strong legislative baseline which safeguards the environment, and protects the interests of society. We would like to see cross-compliance rules in the CAP replaced with a more effective and proportionate approach which improves outcomes for the public whilst being more practical for farmers and land managers.

We’re looking forward to today’s debate and will continue to share our thoughts over coming months as the agriculture Command Paper and Bill are released later this year, and as the details of the 25 year environment plan are developed.

For more on our views on the future of farming and the environment take a look at our website or just have a browse through the rest of our blog.

We’re also supporting Nature Friendly Farming Network, which brings together over 100 farmers who are passionate about wildlife and sustainable farming.

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