A collective approach to delivering public goods in agriculture is likely to deliver the best results for both farmers and the environment.
In a model similar to one taken up by farmers in the Netherlands several years ago, the UK Government is assessing how groups of farmers can deliver public goods as part of pilot schemes in North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
If successful, these collaborative approaches could be rolled out across the UK as part of a new agricultural policy.
Alex Datema, a farmer and chairman of Farmers and Nature, an organisation made up of 40 co-operatives in the Netherlands, said it was an approach which had seen good results for both producers and the environment.
"We have 9,000 farmers actively working to protect farmland birds, water quality and landscapes,” said Mr Datema, who was invited by the Embassy of the Netherlands and Promar International to address delegates from across UK agriculture and environmental groups in London.
“We used to have a system where each farmer would have a contract with the government, but if you want to do something like protect farmland birds, you cannot do it on the scale of just one farm – it needs a landscape of change. This way, farmers feel a sense of responsibility for the collective goals.”
The audience, which also included representatives from Defra and Natural England, heard the co-operatives acted as an ‘intermediary’ between the government and the farmer, with each agreement tailored to a particular area, for example the soil type or climate.
When a budget is agreed by a local authority, the co-operative then assesses what it can deliver for that amount.
As an example, schemes to protect farmland birds could range from 100 euros/hectare to 1,500 euros/ha depending on the commitment the individual farmer makes.
Livestock sustainability consultant Jude Capper said payment for public goods and, specifically, improved welfare and less impact on the environment could become part of retailers’ sourcing, leading to increased demands on producers.
Mr Datema said the end goal was to see farmers being rewarded by the marketplace for delivering public goods, rather than by Government.