Paul Brannen MEP submits feedback to government consultation on agriculture

09 May 2018

Paul Brannen MEP has submitted the below response to a consultation on the future of food, farming and the enviornment by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The consultation has now closed and the department is currently analysing the feedback received. Read Paul's response below:

General observations

There is much to be welcomed in this consultation paper and the comments below should not detract from the overall observation that this paper is headed in the right direction.

Terminology is always difficult but getting the right balance is important or we are in danger of ‘weighting’ the debate too much in one direction.  The opening line of the forward gets the balance right when it says, “this paper outlines how we plan to change the way we use the land”.  Essentially, at its heart, this is a debate about land use.  As idenitified 70% of our land is currently farmed but we could change this figure, up or down.  In fact there are strong arguments, centred around climate change, for reducing this and increasing the percentage of forest cover (the UK is the second biggest importer of timber in the world after China).  Hence the default position looking forward should be to always talk about ‘farming and forestry’ and only use the term ‘farming’ when we mean so specifically rather than ‘farming’ being the default term for how we describe land use in the countryside.

‘Farming and forestry’ work particularly well together in the context of agro-forestry, indeed many UK farmers are practicing agro-forestry often without terming it so.  A recent 3 year research project funded by the EU revealed that 9% of EU agriculture is already agro-forestry  Although the figure will be lower in the UK, Scotland is seeing a shift to agro-forestry with trees and sheep increasingly existing in synergy:

Rural poverty is very much hidden poverty, but it’s there and it´s real.  Many sheep farmers in the uplands are in reality living on less than the minimum wage.  To be poor in rural Britain can be a very isolating experience eg no car & very limited public transport.  There is a danger that in future to make the most of living in rural Britain you will need to be rich, with the poor driven into the towns or forced if they stay in the countryside to live on the breadline.

This divide could be replicated in food consumption. The UK currently produces around 62% of its food needs.  Cheaper imports (EU food tariffs are high) could see this figure fall despite the National Farmers’ Unions arguing for an increase in UK food production.  A divided market may then be the outcome with those on low incomes having no choice, along with those who don’t care, buying cheaper imports while those that care within the middle classes and the rich who can afford it buying the more expensive home grown produce.

Among the selected topics from the questionnaire I am in particular concerned with:

Page 23. Direct payments

We must not fall into the trap of thinking big farms are in some way automatically bad and that small farms are intrinsically good, there is no logic to this.  If a large farm hits lots of targets for farming in an animal and environmentally friendly way I think the tax paying public woud be happy for it to be in receipt of large payments for delivering public benefits on a large scale.

Those farming the urban fringe should receive a disproportionate share of future rural payments because of their proximity to the majority of the population. The location of the urban fringe, also known as the greenbelt, should result in higher visitor numbers and hence it should receive higher payments.  (See Public access to the countryside comments below).  It is also a difficult location in which to farm as the NFU can expand upon.

Page 23.  What conditions should be attached to direct payments during the agricultural transition?

The possibility offered under (a) in the questionnaire of “Removing all of the greening rules” during the transition would send all the wrong signals and as such would be unacceptable.  If the UK is not to ´´race to the bottom ´´ in terms of environmental standards but on the contrary has an ambition to be a frontrunner in improved conditions and public support for public goods, then the agricultural transition needs to be a step in this direction.  Hence the transition period should be used to embed the principle of public money for public goods.  If the time constraints prevent this from happening then the existing system should continue until the new post Brexit payment system is in place.

Page 28.  What are the priority research topics that industry and government should focus on to drive improvements in productivity and resource efficiency (improving environmental performance, including soil health, managing resources sustainably, including agrochemicals).

The benefits of agro-forestry are well documented internationally but need to become better understood within DEFRA and more mainstreamed into UK farming practices, learning from those UK farmers already undertaking agroforestry eg Steve Briggs in Cambridgeshire and Simon and Claire Bainbridge in Northumberland.

Priority research topics should include research into the circular economy and bioeconomy (the UK’s bioeconomy strategy is about to be published by the government), focusing on how to a) make new products from waste streams without compromising on higher-added value use, b) how to make the highest possible value from the biomass available, e.g. new research into structural construction timbers.  (Wood should and will increasingly become too valuable to burn).

Research into policy options to decide the most appropriate incentives and payments given the competing uses should be done and the contribution of every option towards climate change mitigation and adaptation should be a central consideration.

With respect to agricultural production, more resources should go to providing farmers with biological alternatives to agro-chemicals, and the dissemination of the existing knowledge on the topic; e.g. demonstration farms to illustrate the viability of the successful business-cases and their improved environmental performance, or training for farm advisory services. Research as well needs to be matched by appropriate capacities of translational facilities in order to actually end on-farm and on the market.

Page 30. How can government support industry to build the resilience of the agricultural sector to meet labour demand?

There is a compelling case for a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme given the number of foreign workers, both seasonal and all year round, needed by our farming and processing businesses - 150,000 of whom 98% come from the EU. e.g. 90% of the compulsory vets in UK abattoirs come from the EU.  For a proper functioning of the whole UK food chain there needs to be system put in place that ensures a skilled workforce is available and their rights are guaranteed – or they won’t stay/come.

Page 35. Which of the environment outcomes listed below do you consider to be the most important public goods that government should support?

Top of the list should be climate mitigation and adaptation (adaption not mentioned).  If we don’t address climate change everything else falls and in addressing climate change many public goods will follow eg tackling climate change means we have to increase the carbon content of our soils, leading to better soil health.

In terms of land management it provides a win - win situation for biodiversity conservation, improved water management and flood risk mitigation thanks to improved soil structure increasing water retention, and for landscape restoration. There are various scenarios for different local conditions, e.g. restoration of peatlands, establishment of agroforestry systems, woodlands, conversion to organic farming or other type of agro-ecological practice. Outcome based payments could be linked to actual incorporation of trees in the areas, for the occurrence of indicator plants indicating successful restoration of peatland or high-nature value grassland, actual improvement in % soil carbon content, etc. The UK has an advanced approach to natural capital accounting and this could also be an option to incentivise provision of public benefits.

Public access to the countryside tops my list in the second preference group for hard-nosed practical reasons.  If large sums of public money are to continue to flow into rural land use, farming and forestry specifically, this can only occur in a democracy with public support.  Most tax payers are ‘townies’ and they will need to be convinced they are getting value for their money and the best way to do this is to encourage them into the countryside to see for themselves how well their money is being spent - money that could go to the NHS, or schools or care for the elderly.  This is why the urban-fringe is so important as it is the nearest countryside to where most people live.  Often referred to as ‘the greenbelt’ this land is the farming community’s ‘shop window’ and as such it must be easily accessible to the public and disproportionately attractive – currently it is usually the opposite!  Given the numerous health benefits of time spent in the countryside there should be a target of the rural urban fringe being accessible to all within 30 minutes by public transport including in London.  The urban fringe (and we need a better name for it) should see some of the most diverse land use patterns of all rural land ie farmland (arable and livestock), agro-forestry, forestry, allotments, paths, cycleways, bridel paths, parkland, adventure playgrounds, lakes for fishing and sailing etc etc.  While much of the UK’s ‘deeper’ countryside is very attractive it is the urban fringe that should receive a disproportionate share of future rural payments because of its proximity to the majority of the population.  It’s location should result in higher visitor numbers and hence it should receive higher payments.

Page 48.  How should farming, land management and rural communities continue to be supported to deliver environmental, social and cultural benefits in the uplands?

Farmers in the uplands are the most dependent on the CAP direct payment support (around 80% of the farm income).  Future support/payments could come via them delivering results in peatland restoration, which would improve biodiversity, water and flood management, and increased carbon capture.  As the accounting for carbon balance in the accounting category of managed wetlands (of which peatlands are a subset) becomes mandatory in 2026 in accordance with a 2021-2030 Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) framework (which the UK government endorsed), this would be an example of how land managers can be incentivized while at the same time helping the UK deliver on its climate obligations.

Support/payments should also go to diversification with the establishment of woodlands, forests and agroforestry systems - where sheep and other type of agricultural production will still have a place but farmers would become less and less dependent on subsidies and increasingly contribute to and be part of an emerging bio-economy, part of which can use timber as its feedstock.  (The UK government’s strategy on the bioeconomy is to be published imminently and will hopefully address the important role farmers and foresters have in supplying the raw sustainable materials the bioeconomy will need in the future).

With an ever growing UK demand for timber, including for the new engineered constructions timbers such as Cross Laminated Timber that enables building at height (24 storeys, Vancouver, Canada) and scale (Dalston Works, London), the UK needs to plant more forests.  This demand, combined with the need to sequester more carbon in our forests and long-life timber products suggests we should be setting a target to shift 50% of what is currently under sheep in the uplands over to forests in the course of the next 20 years.  (For more information re: Why Build in Wood? ).

Page 45.  Biggest impact to improve animal welfare and health on farms?

The biggest impact could occur through improved housing conditions and improved conditions responding to ethological needs of animals (socialising, dust bath, digging, improved litter), not least to fight the risks of threat of antimicrobial resistance. Free range areas could be improved by inclusion of trees and creation of agroforestry systems, which in many instances increases comfort of animals, e.g. poultry (lower threat felt from potential predators).

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