Rural: encouraging responsible farming practices
A new agricultural revolution?
23 April 2018
UK agricultural subsidies are being revised to encourage more responsible farming practices, writes Luke Dale-Harris
In the middle of the previous century, as war and political upheaval left much of the global population with precarious access to food, the so-called Green Revolution saw a seismic shift in the world’s farmland. With the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties, chemical fertilisers and improved farm machinery, it sowed the seeds for today’s agriculture, and was credited with saving a billion people from starvation.
Now, according to a speech given by UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove to the CLA Business Conference in November 2017, we are once again 'on the cusp of a new agricultural revolution'. It comes in the context of another impending disaster. According to Gove, environmental degradation caused by modern, intensive agriculture has left us with 'nothing short of an emergency', as degraded soils, climate change and collapsing ecosystems threaten our ability to sustain ourselves. Unless we change our practices, we will lose the natural resources that make farming possible.
In recent years, the costs of environmental problems have put an increasing strain on some farmers’ gross margins. Researchers at Cranfield University have estimated that degraded soil costs the UK £1.2bn a year, of which farmers bear a large brunt. Continuous cropping and heavy herbicide use have meanwhile led to the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds such as blackgrass, with yield losses of up to 50% reported.
Change would be welcomed by many. Revolution is probably too strong a word for the measures Gove has in store, which look more like a tweaking – albeit a significant one – of existing environmental regulations and farm subsidies. Yet it could still be the start of something genuinely revolutionary; as with renewable energy policies, Gove’s idea is that, if the right conditions, incentives and investments can be provided by the government, then a more sustainable agricultural economy will develop its own momentum.
In time, and with the proper market mechanisms in place, the protection of on-site environmental assets could be a central part of any competitive farm business plan. It is the government’s intention, as Gove outlined in his speech, that after leaving the EU, the UK will become the 'world leader of sustainable food'.
This will be achieved through a redesigned subsidy system, in which the direct payments per hectare that make up 80% of current subsidies will be all but scrapped. Instead, subsidies look likely to be tied to the provision of environmental services by farmers and landowners. Gove believes that this will shift us away from the 'inefficient, ineffective, inequitable, and environmentally harmful' system of today, and help put environmental assets on farm balance sheets.
On the face of it, this sounds much like the existing Pillar 2 subsidy system. But there are crucial differences: where current Countryside Stewardship subsidies in England are designed largely to provide for income forgone by farmers who protect habitats at the expense of yields, the new system is expected to encourage them to build functioning ecosystems into their business in a way that benefits rather than weakens productivity. Farmers will be encouraged to make nature a business ally, not a scourge.
The potential of this relationship is clearest in the soil. The University of Sheffield predicts, for instance, that the UK has 100 years of harvest left before much of our soil is unfarmable. In the flats of East Anglia, home to our most valuable agricultural land, that estimate is as low as between 13 and 16 years.
If we are going to reverse this process, restore our soils and continue to produce food at the same time, it can only be through the rotation of arable and horticultural crops with those that foster soil fertility, life and other organic matter. In turn, these rotation crops can provide an array of other benefits, from preventing weeds such as blackgrass to supporting wildlife and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
Perhaps less clear is how farmland biodiversity such as birds and mammals can be of benefit to farm systems. While in most cases it simply isn’t, the government acknowledges the need to support farmers in protecting wildlife as a basic public good. However, as Gove has pointed out, there are often intricate relationships between crops and natural processes that should be embraced for the benefit of all. For example, growing wildflowers under crops or in pastures attracts pollinators. In turn, the pollinators attract predators, which also prey on farmland pests and in doing so protect crops, thus reducing the need for pesticides.
Economics still favours intensive, continuously cropped farming over a more sustainable approach. However, with politicians poised to act, the market looks set to change.
In preparation, Countryside Stewardship in England has been simplified and streamlined, to help farmers to start making the environmental changes that will serve them well in the future. Farmers and landowners alike should get on board.
Luke Dale-Harris is a policy and research officer with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, South West
Four new Countryside Stewardship offers have been introduced in England for farmers and land managers to boost biodiversity and help protect and enhance farmland and the countryside. Significant improvements have been made to the scheme to make it simpler and easier for farmers and land managers to apply.
The 4 new offers – Online Arable Offer, Lowland Grazing Offer, Upland Offer and Mixed Farming Offer – provide tailored options covering the full range of different farm types, so farmers and land managers can achieve environmental benefits no matter where they are or what they farm.
The popular Hedgerows and Boundaries Grant also receives additional funding from 2018, with farmers and land managers able to apply for a maximum grant of £10,000, up from £5,000 in previous rounds.
Paperwork for the new offers is quicker and easier to complete with streamlined evidence checks and shorter application forms. The scheme is also non-competitive, meaning that all farmers who meet the eligibility requirements can get an agreement for as few as 3 options or as many as 14, depending on the offer for which they have applied.
The changes have been made to enable more farmers to get back into agri-environment schemes, with options such as the popular nectar flower mix now available for application in the Country Stewardship offers. The new Upland Offer also provides an opportunity for farmers who were on Higher Level Stewardship agreements to get into Mid-Tier agreements.
These new offers complement the existing Higher Tier as well as the Mid-Tier offer, which will continue to be available on an enhanced basis, supporting agreements to promote organics, water quality, wet grassland and traditional orchards.
Fiona Mannix is Associate Director of RICS Land Group