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Is the UK’s post-Brexit farming plan truly green?

The Conservatives promised that leaving the EU would mean better farming practices. But progress is painfully slow.

By Philippa Nuttall

“Brexit, with the right decisions, can enhance our natural environment,” said the then-environment secretary Michael Gove back in 2018. Leaving the EU would allow the UK to “escape from the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP]” and pay farmers to protect nature rather than produce as much as possible for short-term gain. This week the government took a step towards this vision, but a lack of detail has left both environmentalists and farmers jittery.

Set up in 1962 in the shadow of the Second World War, the CAP’s aim was first and foremost to increase agricultural production. The mechanism provided farmers with a guaranteed price for their products, introduced tariffs on external products and allowed state intervention in case market prices fell. Butter mountains and milk lakes were two outcomes of the incentivising of quantity over quality, as was increasing concern about the impact of intensive farming on the environment. Monocultures of corn and wheat, the removal of hedgerows, large animal farms and greater use of pesticides were linked to polluted waterways, the destruction of soil structure, carbon emissions and massive falls in numbers of birds and wildflowers. 

The changes detailed by George Eustice, the UK’s Environment Secretary, today (6 January) to attendees of the Oxford Farming Conference, should go some way to righting past wrongs and moving farming in Britain closer to Gove’s pre-Brexit vision. 

Top lines include the aim of halting declines in species by 2030, ensuring agriculture contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, planting up to 10,000 hectares of trees a year in England, improving water quality, making more space for nature in farmed landscapes, while creating “a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry”. Various schemes will be set up to enable all this. 

Landscape recovery” projects will create around 20,000 hectares of “wilder landscapes, habitats, rewetted peat and afforestation”, estimates the government. Funding will be prioritised for initiatives focused on “recovering and restoring England’s threatened native species”, such as the Eurasian curlew, marsh fritillary butterfly, sand lizard, water vole, wild asparagus and shrill carder bee, and “restoring England’s streams and rivers”. The government believes the projects will lead to carbon savings of at least 25 to 50 kilotonnes a year, roughly equivalent to taking 12,000 to 25,000 cars off the road. The government also plans to offer English farmers payments for smaller-scale “local nature recovery” schemes, such as coastal habitat or peatland restoration.

“One of the few benefits of Brexit is that the UK can correct some of the failings of the CAP and be more serious about environmental payments,” said Chris Horseman, veteran agricultural journalist, who has reported for 35 years on farming policies from both sides of the Channel. 

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The UK’s three biggest nature charities, the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and the RSPB, cautiously welcomed the plans, but also warned of a lack of detail about how the proposals will work – including what guidance farmers will receive and whether a sufficient budget will be allocated.

“The real test of this agricultural transition is not so much whether it is a little bit better or moderately better than what came before, but whether it will be enough to deliver on government targets and to make sure farmers are supported so that they help solve rather than worsen the nature and climate crises,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts. “Anything less than that means that this historic opportunity will have been wasted. While we’re hearing the right noises from government, the devil will be in the detail and the detail is still not published nearly six years after the EU referendum.”

As Bennett said, detail is important for wildlife and climate action and for farmers, both in terms of how far the government will go in bringing nature back to farmlands and in terms of payment. As farmer and nature writer Raynor Wynn notes in her latest book The Wild Silence, going the whole hog and “rewilding” farmland can be “divisive” in farming circles. “Many farmers see it as something pursued by conservationists and tree-huggers, a way of land use that leaves no room for enough food production to feed the country and hardly any profit for the farmer,” she writes. 

Eustice insisted this idea isn’t what the government wants, but rather, in Wynn’s words, a kind of “rewilding-lite” where “you can still produce food and allow biodiversity to return at the same time”. But farmers are concerned about how this will play out in reality. Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the “lack of detail” on how sustainable food production fits in with the government’s nature ambitions is “preventing farmers from making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to them running viable and profitable businesses”. 

Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for the rural constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale, agreed that farmers and nature will lose if Westminster fails to properly handle the transition from one system to another. “The big issue with the government’s plans has been and continues to be that they are ploughing ahead with phasing out the old payment scheme before they’ve even begun to introduce the new one. As a result, farmers across our country are being driven out of business by the government’s incompetence. If we are going to succeed in tackling the climate emergency, we need farmers on the ground to help us deliver it.”

[See also: New Year’s reducetarians? A third of people intend to change their diets in 2022]

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