Friday thoughts on farming's future

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Friday thoughts on farming's future

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I try to end the week with a bit of good news for a Friday, and as we come to the end of a short series of blogs about Brexit and farming (where admittedly the news has been pretty mixed), I wanted to conclude by saying why I think we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to get things right and set out a future that is good for farming, good for nature, and good for people.

On Wednesday, Janet gave us some insights into the critical role that many farmers play in managing important habitat for species like curlew and lapwing. Much of this work is currently underpinned by agri-environment support. In the uplands, where some of the most ‘High Nature Value’ farming systems are already economically marginal, the future of that management is uncertain and will, to a large degree, depend on the direction of future policy and availability of financial support.

Yesterday, Chris shared a different perspective, focussing on how upland farmers can build their resilience through careful business planning, by focussing on profitability rather than just productivity, and by working together to extract more value from within the supply chain. Chris highlighted how upland farmers’ environmental credentials can play an important role in creating brand recognition and achieving better value for top quality food.

And last night, at a dinner for 40 European BirdLife partners, I listened to a Dutch dairy farmer, Alex Datema, explain why farming and the Common Agriculture Policy needed to change for both wildlife and for people.  Whether in or outside the EU, there appears to be consensus that the future of farming needs to be different. 

From reading the various reports that have been published on this theme and reflecting on the contributions from Janet, Chris and Alex, some clear themes seem to be emerging:

-       The future is uncertain, the picture is complex, and there are a huge mix of both risks and opportunities for farmers and for the environment.

-       There is a vital role for public policy to play in shaping that future and ensuring that farmers who are doing great things for nature and the countryside are better rewarded – both through environmental management payments and through the supply chain.

-       The difference between ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’ is huge and now is the time to set the direction of travel.  If we get it right, I believe we can have sustainable, resilient and productive farming nested within a vibrant rural landscape where nature can thrive. If we get it wrong, the consequences for many farmers, for wildlife, and for the environment could be dire.

That is why the RSPB, in collaboration with others, are calling for continued support for farmers and land managers based on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’. At a time when public expenditure will need to be justified more robustly than ever before, we argue that by supporting continued public investment in farming and land management in return for these public benefits, we are acting in the long-term interests of not just the environment, but also the farming community. This argument is supported by recent statements from the Secretary of State, that “…support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear”.

Our proposals for future policy, alongside the recent report we commissioned on Brexit, are intended to be a constructive, pragmatic and ambitious contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of the countryside post-Brexit, and will form the basis of conversations we have with farmers, land managers, other NGOs, Government and other stakeholders across the UK in the months ahead.

We can’t talk for too long though. To do so risks the uncertainty of Brexit turning into drift and stagnation, something that can only increase the risks for both farming and nature. If Brexit is an ‘unfrozen moment’, we need a plan in place before the winter comes.

  • I would take issue to some extent with the Secretary of State’s statement above and that is that because financial support for farmers for environmental benefits has been ongoing for some time it is not easy for those outside the conservation moment  and farming industry to appreciate the effects if this financial support has had if it was no longer on be  forth coming. It seems to me Mr Goves statement is yet another rather glib and over simplification of the situation ,something which this country suffers from so much from our politicians.

    Allied with this, I am sure the RSPB will push hard, at all the politicians and civil servants, all the great work done and being done at  RSPB Hope Farm, as an example of what can be done, no doubt with support to some extent from the current farm subsides.