Farmers are grappling with the twin challenges of Brexit and climate change, and any future Government must ensure they are treated fairly in the transition to a new policy landscape, says Tom Lancaster, head of land, seas and climate at the RSPB.
On the day we go to the polls, it appears we have reached peak uncertainty, and whatever the election brings, I suspect clarity is not a likely outcome.
Whether it’s ‘getting Brexit done’ or a ‘final say’ to get Brexit ‘sorted’ – words which after six long weeks have lost any real meaning – the treadmill of our constitutional crisis is likely to keep on turning for some time.
And yet, there has never been more need for urgent action.
As all parties agree, we are faced with a climate and environment emergency, which affects farming more than any other sector.
Without delay, we need to be developing the policies which support farmers to store and sequester more carbon, to restore wildlife to our farmed environment and to manage the hazards which ‘baked in’ climate change will inevitably bring – more floods, more droughts and sea level rise.
With talk of trade deals, transitions being extended (or not) and the return of ‘deal or no deal’ – unfortunately not the Noel Edmonds version – the temptation will be to wait and see.
This cannot be an option.
Reforming agriculture policy to better support more sustainable food production and nature’s recovery will take time, and we are already looking into the mid-2020s before these policies will be up and running.
Of course, that is if we start straight away.
If a future Government kicks the can down the road now, we are looking at 2030 and beyond before we see any real change, and in the context of runaway climate change and a burgeoning threat of extinction for many UK species, 2030 is well after the horse has bolted.
Reforming policies in the context of such uncertainty is inevitably daunting.
In particular, moving away from direct payments toward ‘public money for public goods’ is an obvious cause for anxiety.
And yet much can be done to manage this change, achieving a just transition for farmers and wildlife.
Much of the modelling which has been done assumes a linear reduction in direct payments for all farmers, exposing farm businesses to a drop in income before new environmental payments kick in to make up the deficit.
But this is not a likely scenario.
In England, Defra – under the current Conservative administration at least – has already said they intend to adopt a progressive approach to reducing payments.
This can be achieved in a way which sees only small reductions for the majority in the first few years of transition, with many retaining a chunky direct payments income as new public goods policies come on stream, with a more rapid withdrawal only kicking in after this point.
In tandem with this progressive approach, future Governments across the UK should couple this with much more active support to the sector to adapt, not just to policy change, but to environmental change as well.
The RSPB has previously called for a Transition Fund to enable this, with support for advice, training and grants which secure win-wins for the environment and productivity.
It is also critical that imports of food under any future trade deals – whether we are inside or outside the EU – meet the same standards as those farmers in the UK are expected to meet.
It is a well-worn Catch 22 situation that the greatest need for changes in public policy often come at the point of maximum challenge and uncertainty.
This is one of those times.
The temptation will be to duck the challenge and kick the can.
But with the environmental crisis we now face, this is not an option.
As soon as the dust settles from this election, work must begin to implement a new policy framework for agriculture, and a just transition toward this which brings the farming community into the heart of a new, green revolution.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster