A current side-effect of the prospect of Brexit is that Britain’s* green, countryside and wildlife groups are in an unusual fever of activity. A quite frantic process of policy formulation is underway as they scramble to try and influence what Brexit might mean for Britain’s farming, because Brexit means decoupling UK agriculture from the infamous Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Yet unless they are prepared to play much harder politics than they have for decades, and are a lot more radical in their proposals so that they engage a much wider slice of society, it is well-nigh certain that the promise of the moment will simply be lost. For much of our wildlife, Brexit would still probably mean exit.
Traditional unfertilised hay meadow in Swaledale: many species
Hay meadow after fertilisation and probably re-seeding and spraying, Swaledale: few species
The Smart Money Must Be on Business as Usual
Dozens of NGOs are meeting in layers of committees and networks convened by the Green Alliance and others. They will cook up proposals which will no doubt include well-researched wish-lists of what should be done: rather more of this, quite a bit less of that. Yet at the same time and without fanfare, the dark suited officials of the Treasury, without whom in the end nothing much will be done, are in frequent contact with the brown-shoed reps of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the slightly more dapper folk from the Country Landowners Association (CLA), to discuss practicalities.
I hear that No 10 has signalled to the ‘green groups’ that it is interested in ‘innovative’ ideas for the future of the 70% of the country under agriculture, and not simply cheaper ideas. A cynic might suggest that keeping the NGOs busy developing innovative ideas has the twin benefits of stopping them causing trouble, and at the same time possibly coming up with a few eye-catching embellishments to policy which prove Brexit had a green lining after all. The smart money must be on an outcome which is close to Business as Usual.
Government does not need to seize this inter-generational opportunity for change if it does not want to, and at the moment I doubt it feels it needs to. I’m told that some arch Brexiteer politicians privately say it would be relatively simple to pass a law which simply carries over most of the EU CAP systems of farm support albeit with different names for programmes. This would avoid a spat over ‘farming’ becoming an obstacle in the bigger, more headline-grabbing Brexit negotiation tangles over things like immigration, free movement and market access.
There certainly are Conservative politicians who would like to see a radical change towards more ‘sustainable’ forms of agriculture, and there are Conservative advocates for a Natural Capital approach, and some who would agree with the former Conservative Minister who pithily described CAP as ‘the engine of destruction’. Yet pro-nature, pro-conservation reform of the countryside is nowhere close to being a government priority. De-coupling from CAP to go green on farming and countryside is not an opportunity government currently needs or wants to take.
If the CAP was being radically reformed without Brexit, it would be different. That would be the main game. But it is not. The main game for the UK Conservative Government is engineering a Brexit they can sell, and in that, countryside, farming and wildlife is a very small side-show. So just because this is the biggest thing that has happened in the agri-environmental world for decades, does not necessarily mean it’s really a big opportunity, unless it becomes a problem the government needs to solve with a change of course. Well-mannered wish lists will not be disruptive.
Three Things That Need To Happen
To my mind three things are needed in order for any Brexit process to catalyse a significant shift towards a radically better UK farming and countryside policy. They need to come together but are to reset the purpose of public agriculture policy in the modern public interest, to end chemical and energy intensive as a failed experiment with no place in the wide outdoors, and to democratize decision making about the countryside.
A Modern Public Interest Purpose for Farming and Countryside Policy
When it was invented, support of farm incomes through price support, and the consolidation of holdings and subsidy of infrastructure changes (eg pull up hedges) so that farms could modernize and make use of new inputs of energy, fertiliser and chemicals, was seen as in the public interest. It’s not now.
So policy should be reset is based on an updated test of the public interest, one that requires gains not losses in ecological and human health: better ecosystem function (eg progressively less chemical pollution and climate changing emissions) and more wildlife, rather than the current payment for farmers-to-be-farmers, which mainly means farming-as-usual. I call it net ecological gain. This is an elite level argument but one where a much wider range of NGOs than just the countryside and wildlife groups have some standing, as channels and representatives of the wider public interest.
Containment of Intensive Farming
Second comes a complete break with chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farming. The 1960-70s style ‘green revolution’ of intensification is an experiment which has proved a largely unmitigated disaster, and it needs to be ended. As a Friends of the Earth pesticides campaigner in the early 1980s, I met large numbers of people at the sharp end of intensive chemical farming: for instance people whose health had been ruined by exposure to farm sprays, sometimes just by living or walking in the countryside; doctors concerned at rates of rural cancers; others whose homes and gardens had been contaminated, and one memorable group of intensive arable farmers who were taking turns to grow food to feed their own families, without the use of chemicals, because they were so worried about the pesticides they used commercially. It seemed to me that this was an industrial chemical process allowed to be conducted outdoors, simply because society, especially the media and politicians, still saw rural areas as benign and pre-industrial because they looked ‘green’.
Intensive wheat farming in Oxfordshire
Society was promised more precision biological pest control such as ‘Integrated Pest Management’, and high tech, less polluting agrochemical applications such as systemic insecticides which would stay inside a living plant. That’s where we got the now notorious neonicotinoid pesticides for which there is abundant evidence that they have been eliminating bees and very likely many other insects, and are all over the place in the environment, cycling through soil and water and living things. As the recent UK State of Nature report demonstrated, the massive loss of bees, butterflies, moths, wild plants and birds has not stopped but overall gets worse, year on year. We have shifted from ‘the problem’ mostly being outright habitat destruction such as grubbing up old hedgerows and meadows, partly because there are very few left to destroy. Now the problem includes a countryside infused with pollution from artificial fertiliser which itself is eliminating natural diversity of plants and pollinators, plus the vast greenhouse emissions of intensive agriculture, and the prophylactic application of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide which is sterilising and polluting the countryside, for example with 20 applications on a single crop.
Bumblebee on a primrose: both increasingly rare sights
Seeing the impact of CAP, it has been reformed by the EU. Structural or “Pillar 2” funds have been redirected into ‘agri-environment’ schemes. Sometimes valiant and sometimes frankly tokenistic attempts have been made to use these funds to mitigate against the combined effect of technology x chemicals x energy, all underpinned by price support and then farm payments, but overall they have failed. Not really surprising when such ‘agri-environment’ funds make up only 20% of the total farm subsidies, and are relatively recent, and the progressive sterilisation of farmland has left many farmers ignorant of wildlife and wild plants that would have been known and understood by their grandparents.
If intensive chemical farming is needed, then like other hazardous industrial processes, it should be only done indoors, where it can be properly monitored and controlled, with zero emissions. Let he agrochemical industry find ways to make a profit from that, maybe by converting from being bulk chemical providers to fine chemicals, service providers and even industrial farmers themselves. Any outdoor farming, including organic, should have to prove itself to be ecologically not just benign but beneficial.
Majoram growing on organic Courtyard Farm in Norfolk
Ironically, much leading edge food production is already moving indoors, although usually without much if any use of chemicals, and driven by market forces and consumer concerns over health, environmental impact, limited resources such as water, and animal welfare. Examples include ‘Vertical Farms’, ‘Z-farming’, the rapidly growing creation of meat substitutes and foods catering for Flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians. Many of these are proven technologies in a world of start-ups and emerging consumer trends, noticed by supermarkets but largely ignored by the conventional farming, countryside and the wildlife policy community.
Democratization Of Countryside Policy
Third, and essential to bring about the above, we need to change who gets to make decisions about the 70% of Britain which is ‘countryside’. Not just to enfranchise the 80% who live in towns and cities but the over 99% who do not own or control farms. Only 0.45% of the UK population are farmers. A mere 0.25% of the people own the countryside. Yet this is the public realm, and their incomes are hugely reliant on public subsidy. What’s missing is something that NGOs could do something to help bring about: ways to engage the 99.5% who neither own nor control their countryside.
This wider public does think it has something to say and a right to say it, concerning ‘Green Belt’. That’s because the British version of Green Belt is a development-planning mechanism and planning is not left to whoever happens to be a big property developer or landowner. We don’t let the Duke of Westminster decide how to run London. We should not let farmers and landowners substitute for democracy in deciding the future of the countryside just because they happen to own it or farm it.
A decade ago I suggested a system of ‘Countryside Contracts’ through which groups of farmers might do a legally binding deal with groups of non-farmers to farm their land in ways that both could live with. Community Supported Agriculture is another example. Many other ‘crowd sourced’ formats might be possible. Elected Local Authorities might become the conduits for public funds for farming and land use, starting for example where the public interest in land use is heavily recreational as in National Parks or where better flood prevention is important.
Unlocking Other Forces
If you took these changes together; the public interest purpose of policy, a containment of intensive farming, and a democratization of who gets to decide the countryside, then many other interests could come into play. For one thing, it could free up a lot of land for other purposes, many of which could help solve political problems, such as places to build new homes. (Fortunately the popularity of golf courses is waning).
The rewilded, de-canalised River Adur running through Knepp Estate, Sussex
‘Rewilding’ could also benefit. Thanks to Friends of the Earth I recently I visited the amazing Knepp rewilding project in Sussex, started by the remarkable Charlie Burrell back in 2001. With growing populations of wildlife such as nightingales and turtle doves which are still vanishing in almost all of the countryside including on most of the ‘conservation estate’ run by NGOs, Knepp is inspirational and arguably, an embarrassment to the conservation establishment. The supply of landowners like Charlie Burrell is limited but more important, the rewilding concept has the Zeitgeist: it captures a public interest demand in a simple sounding concept which many of the 99.5% instinctively love. Yet so far their leverage on this wider debate about possible post Brexit post CAP farming is effectively zero. Sounding off about rewilding is one thing but channelling that energy into a concrete demand could make a real difference. Ecological guru E O Wilson recently called for 50% of the planet to be set aside to save 80% of the remaining wildlife in the world. How about 50% of our farmland, which is 35% of the UK ?
Chalk Hill Blue Butterflies on Carline Thistle
If the coming environmental proposals for a post-Brexit UK countryside and farming policy are not simply to be ploughed under, the conservation groups have to disrupt the transition of Business as Usual which the NFU and CLA have been lobbying for in Whitehall with all the vigour of recently released beavers.
This is the NGOs moment to involve the country, not just their members and certainly not just their experts. The CAP-shedding aspect of Brexit may be an unexpected Christmas for countryside policy wonks but without popular and activated political backing they may end up playing the turkeys.
I am not that optimistic about the UK NGOs pulling off a major coup and really redirecting national policy on farming and the countryside although if they did, it could inspire similar changes in the rest of Europe, even if Brexit happens.
A significant internal problem is the competition between NGOs. The National Trust for example, as the elephant of the pack with its four million members and itself the biggest farmer in the country, has got in early and issued a six point list of principles. These are not bad and probably radical by internal National Trust terms in that they imply that some of its own farmland will go over to nature, and they explicitly call for no public money to be spent that does not pay for ‘public goods’ and that ‘basic income support payment should be removed’. Their list has enraged the NFU but will not be noticed by the wider public: some much sharper demands are needed that affect how the 99.5% live, and the countryside they see, in ways non-experts can understand.
Other big players like the RSPB might also be tempted not to wait for the swathe of smaller groups to agree on a common set of demands, and so produce its own wish list. The difficulty is less that these lists don’t ‘add up’ but more that it drains the energy of their joint lobby.
A further issue is that the established conservation and wildlife groups – much less so other NGOs which may get involved – make themselves beholden to the ‘goodwill’ of farmers. In reality the ‘good farmers’ they actively work with and promote are at best a few percent of the total. Great though these people are, this too often ends up meaning that the NGOs are terrified of opposing the NFU.
Finally, rehearsing and dusting down the old arguments will not disrupt the process and so make a radical shift a possibility. Unless civil society has something new to say, and enough of the groups get behind a few new ideas which have public resonance, they will not create the political problem which requires the government to listen to people, the 99.5%, rather than to just the NFU and the CLA.
* Actually for Britain read UK as all this includes Northern Ireland which while not ‘Britain’ is part of the UK