Farming’s crucial environmental role showcased at landmark NFU conference

Launching a new report, which shows the role farming has played through the generations in shaping Britain’s countryside, last week’s NFU conference highlighted the vital role farmers play in protecting and enhancing the environment.

NFU President Minette Batters presented the new report, United by our environment, our food, our future, as aspirational, the start of a conversation, and emphasised that farmers need to be seen as the solution to the crisis facing our natural environment.

The report sets out the NFU’s key policy asks of government, calling for a better data-based approach to underpin future agricultural and environmental policy-making, ensure that environmental successes can be recognised, and understand where more work is needed

Stressing that farmers would not be able to deliver for the environment if they’re not productive and profitable, the NFU was also clear that environmental impact from farming was inevitable and that the key was to strike the right balance.

The challenge is a big one.  The State of Nature 2016 report was a stark warning that the UK’s natural environment is struggling, with over half of native species having declined over the past 50 years. That’s having an impact on nature’s ecosystem – our soils are in poor health, our air has reached toxic levels, and only 14 per cent of England’s rivers, and 37% of those in Wales, are in good health.  Our ability to produce food into the future depends upon the restoration of a healthy natural environment.  And the NFU are absolutely right that farmers have a crucial role to play in achieving that.

A satellite image, taken on 16 February 2014, showing how soil is washed off our fields and out into the sea. ©NEODAAS/University of Dundee

Some audience members at the conference commented that the new report doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge that continuing decline in nature and ongoing degradation of soil, water and air quality.  They said it also doesn’t present a rounded picture of what initiatives and collaborations were happening beyond voluntary initiatives like the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. For instance the Nature Friendly Farming Network is going from strength to strength – the Campaign for the Farmed Environment does good work but the area of land it covers isn’t increasing in the same way.

With the Agriculture Bill focused on delivering necessary environmental recovery through directing public money towards the delivery of environmental public goods, the future could be positive.  Along with others, we and our tenant farmers will be working with Defra as part of their test and trials programme to design what a new environmental land management system could look like.

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

Farming Minister George Eustice spoke at the conference, emphasising the current opportunity to move towards a more generous, nature-friendly and sustainable farming policy, and that everything in the Agriculture Bill was about ensuring a sustainable, healthy future for the UK’s food production.

Our own work on farming and the environment continues to develop. We’re working closely with other conservation organisations on the Agriculture Bill through Greener UK.  And we’re also making common cause with the NFU and CLA on the need for longer-term funding agreements to give farmers and land managers the confidence to make longer-term plans.

And our Director-General Hilary McGrady will be speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference in January about why she thinks that the public money for environmental public goods approach is the right one for farming to become productive and profitable in the long-term.

Videos from the conference can be found on NFUOnline.

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