If Defra’s latest document is anything to go by, the path of agricultural transition will be beset by instances in which bureaucratic ideology butts up against the realities of farming and food production.
In the foreword to a ’Path to Sustainable Farming’, Defra Secretary George Eustice talks wistfully of his family’s farming history, and how today’s farmers will need to blend modern techniques with the agronomic lessons extolled by the likes of his great grandfather.
You may wonder what today’s farmers, competing in a global economy against highly subsidised competitors, can learn from a Victorian farmer. And you would be right to wonder. But, as with much of this vision, there is no clear answer.
It is a vague document which re-emphasises many of the themes which have been reported over the past few years. And, while reductions in Basic Payments will start to bite from next year onwards, there is a sad lack of detail about what will plug the gap, how and exactly when.
Writ large across the plan, as well, is the underlying feeling that policymakers are seeking to reimagine the rural, to reshape landscapes and ecosystems in line with modern concerns around climate change and biodiversity loss. While these are aspirational themes, it is difficult to see within the plan where a profitable and commercially-focused farming industry fits in.
Indeed, you could argue there is every chance that the most commercially minded farmers will forego environmental payments and simply get on with the job of producing food, with nature playing second fiddle longer term.
It is also clear Environmental Land Management is unlikely to replace the cash lost once direct payments have gone. And, with the UK economy facing huge contraction due to Covid-19, the future funding of agricultural support is by no means guaranteed anywhere in the UK as governments seek to refill empty state coffers.
To stand any chance of achieving its sky high ambitions around nature and food production, Defra must heed its own commitment to work with farmers to ensure these future schemes provide an economic imperative for the industry. After all, without farmers none of this is possible.