Let’s make environmental commitments a reality through new farm support system

On Thursday 14th March, our Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, Patrick Begg, spoke at the Westminster Forum on Food Nutrition. Below is what he had to say on making the Governments’ environmental commitments a reality.

Today I spoke at the Westminster Forum on Food Nutrition on what we’ll need for Government environmental promises to become reality in the Agriculture Act.

There are three key things we want to see to ensure the Governments’ promises are delivered: Legally binding commitments, joined up examples of innovative farming, and money to back up the implementation of a new system from both private and public sources.

Legally binding commitments through the Agriculture Act

The farming sector is facing a moment of huge uncertainty, rivalled only by the uncertainty faced by our natural environment. Equally, when conservationists and famers gather at policy events, we all agree that nature and the ability to produce food are inextricably and symbiotically linked. It feels like a source of fundamental common ground.

I see examples of this symbiosis and yet tension, between nature and agriculture, everywhere I look. Rothamstead researchers last week revealed that 40% of fields are near to devoid of earthworms. Worms aren’t particularly sexy, but I think they need to become pinups for us all. They drive soil fertility, climate resilience, pollination, breeding bird success and so much that is essential to life.

Earthworm in soil at Osterley Park and House, London  ©National Trust Images/John Millar

Farmers, environmental organisations and governments need to face these tensions and work together on our common purpose: restoring and nurturing our natural environment and creating a truly sustainable agricultural system.

We’ve welcomed the Government’s policy commitment that public money should go towards delivering public goods – their promise to reward farmers who take care of our rivers, soils and wildlife. However, policy commitments can come and go with the seasons and what we need to ensure long-term certainty for farmers and the environment is to cement these commitments in legislation. I agree with Minette Batters’s comments from the recent NFU conference. What we need are these assurances, written in ink; and on the vellum of a legally binding Agriculture Act.

Joined up examples of innovative farming methods

As an organisation with over 250,000ha of land and 1500 farm tenancies, we’re primed to test out new farming approaches as part of Defra’s process to encourage experimentation and innovative new methods. Our own tests and trials involve Payments for Outcomes in the Yorkshire Dales, rewarding farmers for improved soil condition and pollinator numbers; In Shropshire we’re trying out a Whole Farm Plans approach to planning environmental interventions; and in Cumbria we’re demonstrating how clean, slow water can be rewarded by private buyers.

These examples of innovation need to be joined up coherently so that we have narrowed down the best approaches and there’s a crucial role for policy makers to make sure our work is purposeful, directed and complementary.

Malham tarn, Yorkshire, ©National Trust Images/John Malley

Conservation as a crop

At our event at the Royal Society two weeks ago we launched our new report, with Green Alliance, on Natural Infrastructure Schemes for carbon. This model shows how carbon can become a private market with farmers rewarded for treating carbon as a crop.

Farmers should be rewarded for planting trees in the right place, allowing land to scrub up, or rewetting areas if that means more carbon is stored. For example, our Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire has shown that organic and minimum till approaches have increased soil carbon. There’s a market out there for buyers who will want to see carbon locked away to help the UK get to net zero emissions by 2050.

Harvesting wheat on the estate at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, ©National Trust Images/Catherine Hayburn

A farmer friend of mine said to me after the launch of our current land carbon report: “Great! Another crop we didn’t know we had!” This sense of a sector seeing the multi-purpose opportunities that come with addressing our overwhelming challenge of climate change is palpable.

However, private money alone isn’t going to turn around the fortunes of nature in this country. Government needs to set out a clear, multi-annual and independently assessed funding commitment for the farming sector.

If we want to turn Government’s promising policies into reality, then we’ll need:

  • Legally binding commitments through the Agriculture Act.
  • More joined-up examples of innovation and experimentation so that when it comes to implementation, we have narrowed down the best approaches through trial and error.
  • Money to back up the implementation of a new system – which can come from both private and public sources working hand in hand.



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