Future of Farming – what we’ve said to MPs

We stand at the crossroads of a new future for farming and the natural environment, as the Government develops its policy in these areas after we leave the European Union. A cross-party MP inquiry is currently looking at the Government’s proposals around a future agricultural policy.

The beautiful view of the valley and its farms at Eskdale and Duddon Valley, Cumbria

Farms at Eskdale and Duddon Valley, Cumbria. National Trust Images/Paul Harris.

Following our oral evidence back in March, we’ve now submitted written evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into Defra’s ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation on the future of farming.  You can see our full response here, and in this blog we take a look at the key points we’ve outlined in our response.

Farming and nature go hand in hand

As custodians of 250,000 hectares of land, in partnership with our 1,500 tenant farmers, we know that the future of how we produce food in this country is intimately tied to the future of our natural environment. Sustainable, profitable farming is underpinned by a healthy environment, which in turn is dependent upon a farming system that’s sensitive to its needs.

That’s why we’ve already welcomed the Government’s proposals to put improving the environment at the heart of a new system for farming in the UK after we leave the EU. Making sure that public money is spent on public goods has the potential to benefit our landscapes, heritage and wildlife – improving soil and water quality and helping biodiversity to recover.

Public money for public benefits – but what benefits?

The Committee asks what types of public benefits we should use public money to secure. We agree with the Government, which has said that public benefits are those that cannot be delivered by the market, and that provide benefits to all of society – and that the principal public benefit a new system should deliver is an enhanced environment.  In a future farming system we should be spending money on better outcomes for the environment – namely the protection of and access to special landscapes and heritage, locking away carbon, more wildlife, healthier soils and clean waterways.

Competitiveness and profitability are also key elements of the farming sector, but these should be secured through a market that functions fairly, and not by public money. However, we believe there is a role for Government in helping farmers in the most marginal areas, such as the uplands, through an uncertain and difficult period of transition and to provide as much certainty as possible about when a new system will come into force.

Money matters

Delivering environmental outcomes costs money.  We’re asking the Government to be clear about how much money it’s going to put behind its ambitions. Research by the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust shows that to meet even existing environmental objectives, £2.3 billion of funding is needed every year.  The future scale of funding needs to be broadly equivalent to existing CAP spend of £3.1 billion, in order to secure environmental outcomes.

By itself, the public purse may struggle to fund the level of change needed to secure the future of the natural environment and a thriving farming sector. The new environmental land management system proposed by Government could combine public and private money to ensure the necessary streams of funding.

The National Trust has been trialling payments for outcomes with farmers in the Yorkshire Dales, much like the model that Government could choose to implement with public money. We’ve also developed the concept of Natural Infrastructure Schemes, where farmers could group together to sell environmental benefits (like reduced flood risk) to local private buyers such as energy or public transport companies.  The National Trust is very keen to work with the Government, farmers and other stakeholders to pilot new approaches during the transition period.

Certainty for the future

Farmers will be helped by having certainty about what a new system will look like and when it will come into effect. This means that Government needs to spell out how long the transition period will last and, as soon as possible, what payments under it will look like. The transition period can be used to test new approaches to paying farmers and other land managers to deliver environmental outcomes. But there are some elements of a new system that we know now will be important: good and early advice to farmers, high quality systems such as IT, and long-term contracts to deliver defined outcomes.

A policy to work for the whole of the UK

As the Government defines a new farming system for England it should work closely with the devolved administrations of other nations to agree shared environmental ambition, the ability to go beyond minimum standards, and measures that avoid competitive deregulation. Nature does not respect national boundaries and therefore we need a future farming system capable of reflecting local specificities while also delivering for the environment in a joined up way.

We’re currently working up our formal response to Defra’s consultation, and will share that on this blog soon.  In the meantime, you can find out more about our views on the future of farming and the environment on our website.

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