Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park.
In the coming weeks, we will likely see the publication of the Government’s long-awaited Agriculture Bill. This legislation, which will set out plans for the future of farming as we leave the European Union, will be the UK’s first major domestic agriculture policy for 45 years.
Leaving the constraints of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – a system which has failed to invest in a sustainable future for farmers – we have a historic opportunity for a new, home-grown approach to caring for our countryside.
The need for a new system is clear. The CAP, with its inflexibility and box-ticking exercises, has tied taxpayers’ money to a system that has not incentivised environmental improvement and left farmers reliant on hand-outs, rather than being properly rewarded for the goods and services they provide.
Without action, not only will we see the continued decline of our environment, but the long-term future of farming – and therefore the rural communities that rely upon it – will be under question.
As the Prime Minister rightly highlighted earlier this year, despite progress, the environmental challenges we face “remain acute”. Since 1970 there has been a significant decline in the numbers of woodland and farmland birds. Pollinating insects have declined by 13 per cent since 1980. Perhaps most alarmingly, our most fertile soils – the very bedrock upon which agriculture is built – could be lost in a single generation.
I am proud that this government has recognised the scale of the challenge, and the shift that we need to see in agriculture policy to restore our precious natural landscapes. The proposals announced by the Secretary of State, outlined in the recent Health and Harmony document, put forward a simple principle: that public money should be used to secure those goods from which the public benefit, but for which there exists no functioning market.
Rather than the EU’s ineffective payments per acre system, this would ensure that taxpayers’ money is used most effectively, properly rewarding farmers for the services they are best-placed to provide, from flood prevention to landscape management and improving soil quality, alongside producing high-quality food. We know those working on the land want to do more now but are limited by a system that rewards size not service. We can’t expect farmers to restore our environment on goodwill alone.
This new approach would not only drive action to secure the environment upon which farming relies, but would also set out a new future for our rural communities. If sufficiently resourced and maintained, this approach will provide farmers with a sustainable income stream in the face of market volatility. This funding would also be more likely to stay in the local economy, rather than passed upstream to national suppliers and supermarket conglomerates: currently every £1 spent on environmental stewardship schemes is worth £1.42 for the local economy. This is in addition to the very real benefits for rural communities from a healthier environment, improved access and better water quality.
It is also worth reminding ourselves of the public appetite for sensible change that works for farmers, the environment and our countryside. A recent poll by Populus revealed that an overwhelming nine out of ten people want farmers to be paid to protect nature, whilst the groundswell of public support for environmental action has shown how passionate the British public are about looking after our precious environment, for the benefit of the nation.
A new approach will naturally need support and complementary policies. Using public money to pay for public goods is the only way to justify public expenditure and demonstrate added value for the taxpayer beyond the food they pay for at the till. But if it is to work, farmers must also receive a fair return from the market for the food that they produce. Likewise, if farmers are going to thrive in a new system, advice must be made available, especially for those smaller farmers unlikely to be able to call on resources of their own.
In the coming weeks and months, we have a once-in a generation opportunity to ensure that British farmers get the support they deserve as custodians of our countryside. As the original conservationists, we as Conservatives must seize this opportunity, and bring forward a new, home-grown Agriculture Act that delivers a thriving farming sector, and enables farmers to play their part in restoring the environment for the next generation.