The Government’s imminent Agriculture Bill must fix the imbalance in the supply chain so farmers are better equipped to protect wildlife, says Jenna Hegarty, head of land use policy at the RSPB.
It’s fair to say that the RSPB and farmers haven’t always seen eye to eye. What to us seems like an objective recounting of the evidence of wildlife declines is often spun as ‘farmer bashing’ by some in the industry, and we don’t help ourselves by sometimes being cloth-eared in how we communicate.
We have worked hard to address this.
In our magazines and in the media, we often champion the good work many farmers are doing for nature, and have made it clear that the real culprits behind our current environmental malaise are the policies and markets farming operates within.
First amongst these is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Historically a direct cause of environmental degradation, in recent years the CAP has done too little to support farmers in their efforts to recover farm wildlife, or indeed to support an economically thriving industry.
As our chief executive highlighted in The Observer at the weekend, society now has a chance to do something about this.
With an Agriculture Bill arriving at Westminster imminently, the Government has a once in a generation opportunity to make sure future policies in England provide farmers with the tools to drive forward the restoration of our natural environment, itself vital for future food production.
We have welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to provide public money in return for public goods, such as biodiversity and flood risk management.
We think this presents the best case for significant public support for farming in the future.
From recent polling, we know the public wants more support for nature friendly farming, and many farmers are already leading the way in demonstrating how profitable farming can go hand-in-hand with a wildlife rich countryside, such as those involved in the newly formed Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN).
This is about more than butterflies and little brown jobs, though. As farmers will know better than anyone, you are on the front line of environmental change.
From flooding to drought, new pests and the loss of pollinators, farmers are the first to feel the consequences of climate change and other environmental challenges.
Public support which enables the farming community to rebuild soil fertility, create habitats for beneficial insects and increase agriculture’s resilience to extreme weather will therefore be critical in making sure we have a farming sector fit for the future, and tooled-up to play its part in securing the natural resources our long-term food security depends upon.
Alongside funding for environmental and other public goods, the Agriculture Bill should also provide Ministers with powers to ensure the supply chain is equitable and transparent, providing a level playing field for farmers.
Brexit creates unprecedented uncertainty for farming and wildlife, but should be no excuse for inaction.
With the Agriculture Bill in the Prime Minister’s in-tray, she has the opportunity to set a decisive course that will lay the groundwork for her efforts to restore nature for the next generation, and secure the natural capital farming depends upon.
With shared challenges which are becoming ever more acute, it’s no exaggeration to say that for farming and wildlife, it’s now or never.