The future of our countryside

A chicory margin at Courthill Farm in West Sussex
Published : 04 Aug 2016

Since 1973 Britain’s farmers have received subsidies and income support through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, we’re calling on government to put the recovery and future resilience of the natural environment at the heart of any funding system that replaces CAP.

Wildlife decline

Over the last 50 years, 60 per cent of species have declined in the UK and 31 per cent have strongly declined. 
Wildlife habitats have been lost, soils have become depleted, natural fertility impoverished and flood and drought impacts have increased. Farming yields are suffering because the land is exhausted. 
This has happened in large part due to the industrialised farming methods incentivised by successive funding regimes since the Second World War.

Long-term plan

We want to see a system that increases the benefit to the public of a beautiful, natural environment rich in nature and wildlife and that secures the long term health and productivity of the land on which our farming depends.
" Unless we make different choices, we will leave an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited."
- Former Director-General, Dame Helen Ghosh

‘Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but are valued and needed by the public,’ said our Director-General, Helen Ghosh.
‘We may need some kind of transition period to get there but that means payments for goods that go beyond food production – for the wildflowers, bees and butterflies that we love, for the farmland birds, now threatened, for the water meadows and meandering rivers that will help prevent the flooding of our towns, and for the rebuilding of the fertility and health of the soils on which both nature and production depend.’

The future of farming

Dame Helen set out six principles that any new system must deliver for the public:
1. Public money must only pay for public goods. Currently, most of a £600m pot from the EU (out of the £3.1bn CAP funding) benefits wildlife and the environment. The majority of the remainder is allocated based on the size of farm. There will need to be a transition to the new world but this basic income support payment should be removed. 
2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it. Currently, only 1/3 of the basic payment is conditional on meeting ‘green’ farming standards. In the future, 100 per cent of any public payment should be conditional on meeting higher standards of wildlife, soil and water stewardship. 
3. Nature should be abundant everywhere. The system needs to support nature in the lowlands as well as the uplands - people in towns and cities also need access to wildlife, recreation and the services the environment provides. 
4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long-term and on a large scale. Nature doesn’t respect farm boundaries and needs joined up habitats on a landscape scale with subsidies implemented on a farm-by-farm basis. In the future, we should start at the landscape level, with farmers and landowners working collaboratively to set plans based on clear outcomes. 
5. Farmers that deliver the most public benefit, should get the most. Currently, the more land you own, the more money you get. In the future, those farmers and land managers who get the most public money should be those who deliver the best outcomes. 
6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature. Currently, some science and technology harms nature – it increases crop yields with big machines and harmful fertilizers. In the future, public money should help create ways of farming that benefit nature and help develop new markets to reward farmer for storing carbon, preventing floods and promoting biodiversity.
‘In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends,’ added Helen Ghosh. ‘The first is utterly dependent on the second.
‘Farmers are key partners in finding solutions but this is too important to leave to governments and farmers to sort out between themselves. 
‘We would encourage ministers to now consult widely on the way we fund farming in a post-Brexit world and involve the public in the debate, along with organisations who have experience and insights to share.’