Benedict McAleenan is Policy Exchange’s Senior Adviser on Energy and Environment
In the middle of the last century, a Green Revolution saved over a billion lives. It wouldn’t be considered ‘green’ in today’s terms – unleashing as it did a horde of pesticides, herbicides, hybrid crops and other things designed to bring nature to heel. But it defied Malthusian doomsters by supercharging agriculture, and taught us again that human ingenuity is an endless source of promethean fire. Sixty years later, it serves as a lesson for fresh environmental challenges.
None of this will be news to George Eustice, the new Environment Secretary, who hails from farming stock and already has six years at DEFRA under his belt. Yet most of Eustice’s training will be scant preparation for his next task, which is nothing less than to reinvent the British people’s relationship with their land.
After the last Green Revolution, Britain signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy, a leviathan that tied our farmers in red tape, reduced relative productivity and incentivised only a narrow range of farm business models, some of which have not been conducive to a thriving natural world. Too many British farms are struggling.
Leaving the CAP is perhaps the biggest opportunity of Brexit, for both environmentalists and farmers. In 2017, Policy Exchange called for reforms to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, reforms which Michael Gove then put into play. Eustice’s first big job is to guide these through Parliament in the forms of the Agriculture and Environment Bills.
On the one hand, the Agriculture Bill creates a new subsidy system called ELMS (Environmental Land Management System), which will pay farmers not for farming outcomes, but for environmental ones. Improving soil, air and water, storing carbon, improving access to the countryside. The change is as deep and complicated as the switch to Universal Credit.
On the other hand, the Environment Bill creates a framework to assure standards now that Brussels is no longer in charge. It will mandate a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) with the task of overseeing the government’s delivery of its 25-Year Environment Plan.
The missing plank
There are plenty of challenges, from keeping farmers onside as business models are upended, to proving that divergence from the EU really could mean outpacing the bloc on the environment. But there is a major plank missing, without which the whole raft could sink. That plank is data.
Without a visionary approach to environmental data across DEFRA’s many priority areas, it will be impossible to understand whether money has been spent well and whether standards are improving. At the moment, we depend on sporadic, inconsistent, gap-filled, uncoordinated datasets with outdated collection, curation and application.
The government plans to pay farmers to improve soil health, but we have no consistent methodology for testing the ‘health’ of soil, nor its carbon sequestration. On air quality, the national monitoring network produces disparate, coarse maps that are nearly useless for finding hotspots; local monitoring is not consistent from council to council.
The UK has no long-term trend data on water pollution and its data sources change often. We have no way of knowing exactly how many trees are grown each year because we depend on tracking Forestry Commission grants and felling licences, rather than real-world monitoring, so we miss the true tree-felling impact of storms and blights. There is no up-to-date record of ancient woodlands, making the job of assessing HS2’s true costs even harder.
None of which even touches on our patchy biodiversity data. The best attempt at documenting this has been the State of Nature Report, in which a group of NGOs seek to catalogue species in flux, frequently noting a dearth of usable surveys.
The good news is that Britain is perfectly placed to address the green data gap. We have world-leading expertise in the technologies that will solve this problem. We’ve seen data revolutions in other sectors, with huge public benefits. As one government adviser put it to me, “Before Citymapper, no one really thought of data and bus drivers in the same space. The same goes for farmers now.” Citymapper readily points to the open-mindedness of TfL in making this possible. There are other case studies from within government – the MoD’s Hydrographic Office has overhauled its data capacities and is a world leader again.
Not only are we well equipped for it, but there’s a huge opportunity. The Met Office is about to invest £1.2 billion in a supercomputer that it estimates will deliver £22 billion in economic benefits. Ordnance Survey, originally a military office, is another world leader in commercially valuable geospatial data. Data from earth observation and remote sensing is becoming core to financial investment decisions, especially as the climate changes and risks must be priced more carefully.
Satellite and drone fleets equipped with the right sensors could monitor a crop yield, a woodland’s growth or a peatland’s recovery. It could direct farmers (or agricultural robots) to attend to underperforming areas in ways that have been under-incentivised by the CAP. A better system of sensors could also do far more to track water and air quality. We could better monitor emerging flood risks and act earlier. Companies like Nature Metrics can even track biodiversity through genetic sampling of soil and water. It all adds up to a data-rich, productive rural economy with a better understood ecosystem.
Kickstarting the next Green Revolution
To make the revolution happen, DEFRA must become a data powerhouse. Eustice should start by creating an ‘Office for Natural Statistics’, to sit within DEFRA and co-ordinate data collection in a way never done before. He should then ask it to conduct a great census of Britain’s natural capital, as recommended by the Natural Capital Committee, to establish a baseline for the billions that taxpayers are about to invest in it.
The Office for Natural Statistics should form the bedrock of a much wider geospatial community, setting new standards and ambitions for environmental data. It should have the powers of a Legal Deposit Library, with full access to published research, Environmental Impact Assessments from the construction industry and farm surveys.
Like the Met Office and Ordnance Survey, its datasets would be valuable and should be easily available in an interoperable format for AgriTech innovators, water companies, researchers and regulators. It should mostly be free and open, but not always. Earnings from commercial fees could help to form a business case for investment in monitoring and AI, including a British version of the EU’s Copernicus Earth Observation satellite (as Policy Exchange has argued in a report quoted by the Prime Minister).
Once this data-led approach is embedded, the opportunities grow and grow. Whether it’s providing digital IDs for food products or real-time stats on tree growth and peat restoration, it all begins with data.
The last Green Revolution saved lives and the next one will too. Like most modern revolutions, data will be its lifeblood. But we haven’t monitored the right things properly for a long time, which shows in the results. Now we have the chance to change all that.