Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources
Post-Brexit landscape for farming
There is unprecedented pressure on the countryside, especially the relatively small proportion of it that is of high agricultural quality. The watchword post-Covid is resilience, and some interpret that as the UK needing to grow more of its own food, and import less. The UK population that needs to be fed keeps growing, though that may be more slowly post-Brexit than it was before. But Brexit also means that farmers can expect a completely new system of agricultural support. The Basic Payments just for growing food are being phased out. In their place will come an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that will give ‘public money for public goods’, with the public goods in this case being environmental improvements. No-one yet knows what this will look like, what level of support it will entail, and whether food production will play any part in it.
There is also an expectation that agricultural practices will need to change so that they become more supportive (or less destructive) of nature and biodiversity. The new environmental land management schemes (ELMS) are likely to help of course, but it is still far from clear what the trade-off is, if any, between nature-positive farming and agricultural productivity. Sustainable farming needs to do more than produce food, it needs to look after the countryside more generally, maintaining a patchwork of hedgerows, meadows and woodlands that create natural habitats for wildlife and fauna to thrive. So far, highly productive agriculture, in terms of yield per hectare, has tended to be less diverse in terms of rotations, and more energy and chemical-intensive, with larger fields and fewer hedges for wildlife. Can UK farming deliver both diverse natural systems, and lots of food at a price that consumers consider affordable?
And then there is net zero. Agriculture is unique in that it needs to do more than net zero. It needs to store carbon – in soils, trees, or through energy crops with carbon capture and storage – to offset the emissions from other sectors that will be very difficult or impossible to abate. Agriculture needs to go seriously carbon negative, but the systems of measuring and paying for carbon storage by agriculture are still in their infancy.
Co-creating nature areas
The National Farmers Union are already doing work to help release land for nature. However, there are many other demands for land – transport infrastructure, housing, recreation, to name just a few. Given these pressures, it must always be remembered that land is finite.
These issues provide the challenging context and objectives for local governance of land use and land management, in which councils have a potentially crucial role to play. One possible approach to addressing this agenda was provided by the Nature Improvement Areas (NIA) initiative, which ran from 2012-2015. Twelve areas were “run by partnerships of local authorities, local communities and landowners, the private sector and conservation organisations with funding provided by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England”. They sought to build partnerships between local people and communities on the basis of a shared vision for the local environment that involved establishing and improving ecological networks, restoring wildlife habitats and supporting natural processes to adapt to climate change impacts.
While the success of the programme was mixed, many lessons from this stakeholder-driven partnership-based activity that was rooted in local priorities can be drawn from the extensive monitoring and evaluation of the programme that was carried out. Some of the lessons seem obvious, such as the fact that collaborative programmes of this kind have significant costs. Even though they may generate substantial public benefit, if they are not commercially viable, the initiatives will not be sustainable in the absence of long-term, secure public funding.
The NIAs could have been the pilots for the delivery of ELMS, seeking to root the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ in a broad locally-based process that was accountable to local communities even as they raised awareness about the importance of the public goods to the communities’ rural economy and wider well-being. In the event, as with so many short-term, stop-go central government initiatives, it seems likely that the experience of this programme will not fulfil the potential for learning that it offered. However, the programme allowed communities to collaborate, as co-creators of places to reconnect with nature for health and well-being. It is hard to see that any approach will prosper without the broad-based partnerships and collaboration that lay at the heart of the NIA initiatives. Such initiatives could be given a new lease of life with funding from the UK’s future model of agricultural support.