In a UK free to design its own post-Brexit policy, farmers and environmental NGOs are fighting for the same cause – continued investment in the countryside, says Tom Lancaster, principal policy officer for agriculture at the RSPB.
The Brexit referendum has given rise to many political earthquakes for farming and the environment.
Among the existential debates about the future of public payments, trade and labour, one of these shifts has gone more or less unnoticed.
I’m going to give it some attention here though, as it should fundamentally change the way that farmers, land managers and environmentalists engage with each other in the years ahead.
My main case is the nature of post-Brexit politics means that environmentalists and farmers have gone from being antagonists to allies.
In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that we are perhaps now one of the farming sector’s biggest political allies, at a moment when we both need all the friends we can get.
In the EU, policy was settled. Trade and labour, although at times contentious, were not on the radar in the way that they are now.
And when it came to the Common Agricultural Policy, the budget was sacred, and the argument was about how to cut the cake.
This created an at times parochial argument between farming unions and green NGOs as to where the money should go, with battle lines drawn around issues such as greening and modulation.
Brexit has changed all this. The debate on payments now is not how to spend the money, but whether there will be any money at all.
Far from being foes of the farming community, green NGOs are now among the few groups outside farming unions arguing for continued investment into farming and land management.
With a political tradition in the UK which prioritises consumer over producer, and price over everything else, we are standing up for farmers as producers – not just of food, but of the public goods such as wildlife, clean water and carbon storage that we need farmers to provide.
So when we’re making the case for future farm support to be geared toward environmental ‘public goods’, I’d argue this isn’t a threat to farming, but an opportunity to make a positive case for continued public support which delivers real value for money.
On trade, both farmers and environmentalists are united in their concern over the potential implications of future free trade deals with countries that have lower standards than the UK.
So, when we’re standing up for the precautionary principle, and pushing for high environmental standards in the UK’s future trading arrangements, I’d argue that this represents a real opportunity for us to work together.
It makes sense for farmers and environmentalists to be united in calling for a UK trade policy which has high environmental standards at its heart – with imports required to meet standards that are at least as high as those met by UK producers.
And when arguing for a green watchdog with real teeth to hold Government to account on these environmental commitments, and for targets in a future Environment Bill, this isn’t because we want to create more bureaucracy for farmers.
It is because this is what is needed to drive environmental restoration, and with it, long-term public investment in environmental land management, and therefore into farming and farm businesses.
I realise that for some in the farming community, these arguments may fall flat. Indeed, real differences and disagreements will undoubtedly remain.
But many farming representatives still seem to view us as the enemy, giving rise to what can sometimes feel like knee-jerk reactions against the policy ideas that we propose.
Hopefully here, I’ve at least gone some way to convincing Farmers Guardian readers that far from being foes, we may well now have more in common than either of us are yet to fully realise.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster