Defra’s proposals for a new environmental land management scheme will not be a success without a complementary sustainable food strategy, argues Lucy Bjorck, senior land use policy officer at the RSPB.
Regardless of your views on Brexit, agriculture policy is perhaps the one area where we can deliver real change for the better.
But better for whom? Better, we would argue, for society – for the taxpayers who currently fund the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to the tune of more than £3bn a year, better for farmers who have to deal with an inequitable and overly bureaucratic system, and better for the environment, which is being degraded under the current regime.
The CAP has long been a flawed instrument, delivering us food mountains and waste on a monumental scale in the ‘80s; overseeing the erosion of our soils and the loss of beauty and wildlife from the countryside, all the while representing a grossly unfair distribution of taxpayer’s money.
A report published last week, which highlights the huge amounts of money paid to the most polluting farming systems, demonstrates just how perverse the CAP has become.
The proposals which the Government is currently consulting on should phase out such absurdities, and instead ensure public money pays for public goods – delivering real value for society at large, clarity for farmers and benefits for wildlife and the environment, which itself is fundamental to the health and viability of the farming industry.
These proposals have led to much discussion around what ‘public good’ means. Despite the term, which is easy to misinterpret, the definition is clear – it is about what the market does not or cannot provide – such as more wildlife, clean water or resilience to flooding.
It is an approach which creates a compelling case for ongoing public support, whilst enabling farmers to focus on building sustainable businesses, knowing all their outputs are valued.
Food then is not a public good. It is a core product farmers should be fairly rewarded for by the market. Expecting the public to pay for food production through their taxes, when they already pay at the till, is neither fair nor effective.
It is unsurprising though, given the history of the CAP and the power imbalance within supply chains, that a fair market return is hard to come by. So there is a clear role for public policy beyond environmental land management to address the shortcomings of our complex food and farming system.
To do this, Government, in consultation with stakeholders from a wide range of interests and industries, should develop a Sustainable Food Strategy for England.
This should include new policies with real teeth, picking up on aspects we would expect to see in the Agriculture Bill, such as statutory codes of conduct, and other areas of related Government policy, including encouraging greater uptake of sustainable and healthy diets.
Such a strategy would need buy-in from across government – a truly integrated approach similar to that proposed in the Square Meal report nearly four years ago.
It could set a framework to join up actions across Government, helping to contribute to policy goals from improving the profitability of farm businesses, to public health and the environmental sustainability of agriculture.
Defra’s promised environmental land management system for England could be the beginning of a real renaissance in our countryside, supporting those farmers who are not only passionate about producing great food but also want to see the countryside bursting with nature.
But adding to this a Sustainable Food Strategy for England to address the shortcomings in the wider food system could deliver even greater benefit and help bring about real health and harmony for people and wildlife.