What is the public paying for? Guest post on farm subsidies from Tom Lancaster

p1040941

Biogas Maize received a double subsidy © Miles King

I’m delighted to publish this guest post from Tom Lancaster, Senior Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB

 

 

 

 

The question is often asked of the Common Agricultural Policy – what is it exactly that the public is paying for? For a policy that continues to absorb 40% of the EU budget, it’s an enduring scandal that no one can provide a satisfactory answer to that question.

 

As we head toward the EU exit, what we pay for in future environment and farming policies will be the central question for all concerned. From our perspective, the focus should be on the environmental goods and services that farmers and land managers can provide to society. The fact that these are not rewarded through the market (unlike food for instance) provides a strong case for public intervention.

 

If you take this as read, the question again becomes, what should the public pay for? In this instance, I don’t mean what the balance should be between objectives, or the line between regulation and incentive, crucial though those questions are. Instead, here I want to focus on what is the basis upon which we make payments to farmers and land managers in return for environmental benefits?

 

This is where we descend into some uninhibited policy wonkery, but stick with it, because it matters.

 

[Spoiler alert: it’s possible and necessary to transition to a public goods policy where every payment relates to an action or outcome, and this is why.]

 

In traditional markets, prices are established by the interaction of supply and demand, but what are the options when dealing with environmental goods and services which markets cannot handle? From a public policy perspective, there are roughly three options that I can think of – the classic income-foregone and management costs model of agri-environment fame; attaching conditions to direct payments, as per the recent CAP greening measures; or an approach that attempts to replicate market forces and prices the benefits provided, a la payments for ecosystem services.

 

With the caveat that I know next to nothing about trade policy generally and World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules specifically, I think you can start from the assumption that the third of these is tricky when thinking about public policy. Private ‘buyers’ of these services can pay what they want – i.e. a nominal or ‘market’ value – but public buyers will presumably still have to abide by WTO rules if it involves agriculture (which it probably will given 75% of the UK is farmed).

 

This then leaves you with the first two, for which the WTO rules are set out in Annex II of the Agreement on Agriculture. From environmental, economic and political perspectives, they both have pros and cons.

 

Conceptually, a basis to payments of income-foregone and management costs makes sense. It’s economically efficient, easy enough to calculate at a relatively fine spatial scale and readily understood. Importantly, it also means that payments have a basis in specific actions, meaning that, roughly speaking, the more you do for the environment, the more you get. It does however also have its limitations.

 

As the Farmers’ Union of Wales pointed out, covered by one of Miles’ recent blogs, using this as your basis for payments can limit what you can pay. If you have a sector where 55% of income comes from subsidy, paying ‘enough’ through this route can become [politically] problematic. This is particularly an issue for uneconomic farming systems – if there is no income from agriculture, there is no income to forgo – and becomes an environmental issue when some of these systems are needed to secure the environmental benefits that only certain types of agriculture can secure, such as extensive cattle grazing.

 

The alternative then is to add strings to direct payments. This is the model the European Commission pursued with CAP greening by making 30% of direct payments conditional on complying with certain environmental measures. The temptation of this approach is that it means you can pay what you want, without being inhibited by WTO rules. There are some big ‘ifs’ attached to this though that sour things quite a bit.

 

First and foremost is the fact that with this approach, the payment has no connection to the action that it is conditional upon. Without this, farming union lobbyists are free to water down the level of ambition associated with these ‘strings’, without jeopardising the level of payment. This is exactly what happened with CAP greening – the budget was secured in February 2013, which gave the European Parliament and Council carte blanche to dilute what farmers had to do for the money, without any negative consequences, before political agreement on the CAP in the summer of 2013.

 

As CAP-guru Alan Matthews puts it, “Farm groups and status quo-minded member states and MEPs could work to weaken the ambition of the greening proposals without having to worry that this could lead to a further reduction in the CAP budget” (page 178). Matthews here was referring to the fact that budget was ring fenced and secured, but the fact that politicians could do this without worrying about implications for individual farmers was because farmers would get 30% of direct payments, irrespective of how ambitious what they did for the money was.

 

It’s also limited by the fact that direct payments cannot alter the factors of production, for good reasons given the environmental degradation that was driven by coupled payments. So if you want to support the extensive cattle grazing mentioned above specifically, as opposed to a generic land use that may be environmentally benign at best, or damaging at worst, you can’t use this payment basis to do it, because that would mean specifying a specific type of production.

 

So if you’re an NGO policy officer (like me), or perhaps more pressingly, a time poor civil servant, this leaves you in a bit of a pickle – how do you pay enough to secure the good things society wants and needs from land, in a way that ensures every pound spent secures a tangible outcome not secured by the market?

 

To demonstrate value for money and a link between outcomes and expenditure – surely vital if we are to make any sort of case to a Treasury not known for its largesse – then we need to start from a principle that all payments should secure a definite action or outcome. This then leads you toward an approach to payments based on income-foregone and management costs. WTO rules matter, but only up to a point – they are only relevant if another member challenges the payment, and given that the UK is unlikely to match the EU’s generosity to farmers, you could make a cogent argument that a challenge is unlikely.

 

Crucially within WTO rules, or at least the EU’s current interpretation of them, income-foregone is much more flexible than the FUW may have you believe. For example, as this work for the Land Use Policy Group suggests, you can do things like pay total costs of management, so that all of the costs associated with uneconomic but environmentally beneficial cattle grazing are covered (for instance). Critically, this then allows for payments significantly beyond those in conventional agri-environment schemes, whilst still retaining the link between payment and action or outcome that a policy focused on the provision of public goods will need.

 

It is issues such as this that need to be tackled as we develop post-Brexit environment and farming policies across the UK. This is just a snapshot into the options available, and the complexity that faces us over the coming years. It is also indicative of how relatively (very) dry policy questions and decisions will have a major impact.

 

We can’t pretend to have all answers yet, but we are working with others, including farmers, to build towards what we want to see in a future policy to ensure that it delivers for nature, farming and society. Being clear about what the public is paying for, why and how, will be central to this.

Posted in Brexit, farm subsidies, Farmers Union of Wales, WTO trade rules | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Farmers Union attacks public goods approach to post-Brexit farm policy

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-08-51-54

Farmland used to prevent downstream flooding

While there is still nothing new coming from the Government on what a post- Brexit farm policy will look like, The Farmers Unions are gearing up to have their say – and they will expect to have the lion’s share of the conversations with and influence over Government Departments at UK and devolved administrations.

The National Farmers Union, long known as a fully deniable department within the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, has not yet publicly announced its proposals for the new farming policy, though its President had “robust” discussions with Defra Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom on monday.  NFU are very worried indeed that English farmers will lose access to the Single Market under a Hard Brexit. If this happens tariffs will be introduced making our food more expensive for our EU neighbours to import. There would go some highly lucrative export markets.

Meanwhile in Wales on monday, the Farmers Union of Wales launched their Brexit Briefing Paper – except they haven’t actually made it available to the public (yet). I was looking forward to reading what they were proposing, but had to make do with a load of press releases instead. One thing did catch my eye.

The FUW claimed that World Trade Organisation rules prevent a Welsh or UK Government adopting a “farm payments for public goods” approach, to replace the awful Common Agricultural Policy.This is what they said:

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-08-40-02

Curious, I looked up the relevant wording in the WTO (annex 2 para 12). This is what it says:

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-08-41-18

That looks pretty clear to me – WTO rules, as you would expect, do allow payment for public goods – as long as those payments reflect additional costs, loss of income and have clearly defined benefits for the environment.

So if a farmer was paid to alter the way they farmed their land – to reduce downstream flooding for example; and this involved capital spend on eg blocking drains or creating new wetlands; and there was a quantifiable loss of income because there was less arable or pasture land to produce food, then WTO rules would allow those payments to be made.

Am I missing something, or is the FUW deliberately trying to portray a “public goods for public money” approach as breaching trade rules?

Posted in Brexit, farm subsidies, Farmers Union of Wales, NFU, public goods, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Good News for Beavers and Natural Flood Management.

Andrea_Leadsom_MP

Good news on nature and the environment is pretty thin on the ground these days – we obsess over how bad Brexit is going to be for nature, how Trump is going to destroy the planet and make us pay for it. But every now and again good things happen. When they do, it’s right we celebrate them and praise those who campaign and those who make the decisions.

Firstly Defra have committed £15 million to support natural flood management (NFM) projects. That Andrea Leadsom made this announcement responding to a question from former Nature minister Richard Benyon, is thanks to the campaigning skills and effort of Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth. Richard has been an enthusiastic advocate for natural flood management, so it seemed proper that he should be asking the question of the Government.

Others (notably George Monbiot) have also been making the argument that NFM needs to be a much larger part of the Environment Agency (and indeed everyone’s) work on flood prevention. That Defra made the commitment to do this is also thanks to the efforts of Alistair Driver, who has recently retired as National Biodiversity Manager. I first met Alistair in 1990 and I think it’s fair to say he has done as much as anyone for nature in the UK over the past 30 years. Alistair had put a very strong case for NFM to previous floods minister Rory Stewart, before he moved to International Development.

Natural Flood Management covers a wide range of different approaches – but the principles are that by working with nature, flooding can be avoided or minimised. This doesnt mean that there is no need for hard flood defences (or dare I say dredging) anywhere every again. But by slowing the flow of water from catchments, peak flood heights can be reduced, so fewer homes and businesses get flooded. NFM is often equated with tree planting, but this is only one of the many possible approaches. Keeping water in floodplains would seem like a sensible option, rather than encouraging it to flow off them as quickly as possible (which is what you do if you want to farm intensively in the floodplain).

FMP cover

Floodplain meadows (yes I am a fan and sit on the Floodplain Meadows Partnership steering group) provide flood storage in the winter and are amazing places for nature – as well as producing healthy meat and dairy from their wildflower-rich hay and pastures. There are only about 1500ha of this precious habitat left in England: why not have a programme to create or restore another 1000ha in strategic locations where flood storage to reduce downstream urban flooding? The beauty of floodplain meadows is that they continue to be farmed, while providing natural flood management.

 

The second bit of very good news came out of Scotland – that the Scottish Government has finally decided that Beavers are a native species and therefore should not only be allowed to stay in the places where they have become established, but should also be protected. This is obviously great news for Scotland’s Beavers (they will hopefully no longer be shot), but it is also very good news for England’s existing Beavers (on the River Otter in Devon) and future populations.

It seems unlikely that the UK Government will ignore the Scottish decision on the status of Beavers. After all, Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain – not from Scotland. If they are native in Scotland, they are native in England and Wales. While we continue to be subject to the EU Habitats Directive (on which Beavers are listed as a protected species) Beavers should now be protected by law in England and further re-introductions should be encouraged – or even required, to work towards achieving Favourable Conservation Status for this endangered animal.

There will be an inevitable outcry from the Anglers; as there was when Otters returned to Britains’ rivers. But Anglers and fish have survived the Otter’s return, as they will survive  – and benefit from – the Beaver’s return.

Beavers are the ultimate Natural Flood Engineer and some projects investigating how best to use Beaver reintroductions to mitigate flooding, should also form part of this new and very welcome future for Natural Flood Management.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

clean ponds and encouraging bees: Bayer influences public debate on future of farm subsidies

A public survey, paid for by mega Agrichemical industry business Bayer, has found that three quarters of the public supports farmers continuing to receive subsidies. So far the survey has received little publicity, just a couple of articles in the farming press.

bayer-survey

 

 

 

 

 

On the face of it this survey would give succour to those arguing for “business as usual” for farm support after Brexit. But it’s always worth scratching beneath the surface of these articles to look at the data – and, more importantly, what questions were being asked and answered.

the first, main question asked of the Populus members (it was Populus who conducted the survey for Bayer: these surveys cost between £5,000 and £10,000)

To what extent do you think farmers are important or not important to the UK economy and way of life?

Note that the question has been carefully designed to conflate “economy” and “way of life”. This will inevitably change the answers given, compared with two questions asking separately about economy and way of life.

the headline figure is that 95% of respondents agreed that farmers were important to the “economy and way of life”.

There was however a very interesting divergence of views based on age of respondent. 37% (of a small sample) of 18-24 year olds only thought that farming was “quite important” while only half that proportion of 65+ year olds felt farming was only “quite important”. Conversely 80% of 65+ year olds felt farming was “very important” compared with 55% of 18-24 year olds.

Question 3 (we don’t know what happened to question 2, perhaps it didnt give the right answer) was

To what extent, do you think it is important or not important that the UK produces its own food

this is obviously a “food security” question, though again it does not ask how much of the food consumed in the UK,  should we produce. The Government suggests we are currently 76% self-sufficient in food – though I believe that figure rather unhelpfully includes exported food which is then netted off against imported food. This figure hides many important details too – although we are 85% self sufficient in meat and dairy, that figure drops to 23% for fruit and veg (excluding potatoes.)

Would anyone seriously suggest that it was not important for the UK to produce any of the food we consume? Amazingly (to me) 6 out of 2084 respondents believed it was not at all important. Leaving aside these individuals, a surprising 2% believed it was not very important that the UK produced any food of any kind at all.

More seriously, 75% agreed it was “very important” that the UK produced some food for its own consumption, while 22% agreed it was “fairly important”.  Again the age difference in views is really striking. For 18-24 year olds, only 55% felt it was “very important” that the UK produces its own food, compared to 84% of 65+ year olds.

The following questions were about GMOs. For some strange reason these weren’t mentioned in the farming press article., but I’ll mention them briefly here. the first GMO question was

Q.5 Populations worldwide are growing, while the available land to grow crops is reducing. One solution to ensure we have enough food is to reduce crops’ vulnerability to disease through genetically modified (GM) crops which have extra genes inserted into them. Based on what you know about genetically modified crops, which of the below best describes your views about the development of GM foods?

now that’s not a loaded question is it? Based on that remarkably biased question, 10% said they thought

“I think [GMOs] are the only way forward”.

I kid you not, that was the first option.

For those who failed to fall into the trap, 54% chose

“I agree with them in principle, provided there are no negative consequences related to health or the environment”

while 27% chose “I don’t agree with crops being genetically modified.”

I guess this wasn’t the answer Bayer was looking for, so they didnt publicise it. It was also interesting to see that there was a big gender split on GMOs. 21% of men but 33% of women don’t agree with GM crops, while 12% of men and only 7% of women though they were “the only way forward.”

Less than half of women polled agreed with GMOs in principle.

The next question (4) was also removed from the results, with question 5 asking about “gene editing”.

Bayer and other Agri-corps are trying to reframe the GMO debate by introducing the idea that “gene edited” crops are somehow not GMOs. They claim that gene editing only uses the crops own natural genes; and is therefore practically the same as traditional plant breeding. I did a biochemistry degree in ancient times and I can tell you this is bullshit. Gene editing could eventually enable crop scientists to change every single DNA base in a crop plant or livestock genome, including creating the same genes that current GMO technology crudely implanted into the genome. Gene Editing is just the next generation of crop tech. I’m not say it’s good or bad.

Anyway Bayer’s question was

Gene editing, where existing genes in the plant are optimised, is a new technology increasingly being used in human medicine to deal with diseases which otherwise are very difficult to deal with. It is also increasingly being used as a way of breeding new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests or drought, for example. Which of the following best describes your opinion on gene editing?

note how the PR experts at Bayer cleverly introduced human medicine into the question. If it’s being used in human medicine it must be a) safe and b) a thoroughly good idea, surely?

This time, respondents were not given the opportunity to agree that gene editing “was the only way forward”. overall only 51% agreed that

“If it is safe, then I am happy for gene editing to be used in crops”.

Safe for whom?

49% felt they either did not know or did not agree with gene editing.

Not surprisingly the same gender split revealed itself with this question. 29% of women were unhappy with the idea of gene editing, and only 44% were happy if it was safe.

Question 7 introduced the notion that farmers do stuff which helps nature. Unhelpfully the word ‘biodiversity’ was used. I have written copiously about the importance of language in communicating to different audiences about nature. When asked in one uk public survey, 80% of people thought it was a washing powder. Any here’s the question:

Q.7 Do you think farmers have a role to play in ensuring biodiversity (maintaining a variety of plant and animal life in the world) – e.g. building ponds, planting trees, planting rarer plants, protecting wildlife, encouraging bee population growth?

Here we have an insight into what Bayer think farmers do for nature, and what sort of picture Bayer wants to paint for the public, about farmers and nature. Leaving aside what on earth “ensuring biodiversity” means, in Bayer’s world (or the picture they paint) farmers help nature by

  • building ponds,
  • planting trees,
  • planting “rarer” plants,
  • protecting wildlife and
  • encouraging bees.

Note things like ponds, trees and planting “rarer” plants are not things that are done in crops. Protecting wildlife could mean anything at all.

Encouraging Bees is something Bayer are very keen on. Here’s a lovely expensive looking website to reassure you that Bayer loves Bees. Oh but Bayer also manufactures Neonicotinoids. Which kills bees and a wide range of other invertebrates.

Anyway what are these “rarer” plants, why are farmers planting them, and why are they more important than “rare” plants or “common” plants. Talk about confusing!

After all this confusion (which I am sure was accidental) imagine the public wondering what washing powder has to do with farming. Perhaps the ponds, once built, need a good clean so they can be better for nature.

Unsurprisingly there was a large “don’t know” vote for this one, up to 15% for 35-44 year olds and 14% in the south-west. Blokes thought they understood the question and there were only 8% don’t knows.

Those who thought they did understand the question voted overwhelmingly for the positive. 84% believed farmers have a role in “ensuring” biodiversity. And who can argue with that? All those ponds being built (and cleaned), trees and “rarer” plants being planted hither and thither; Bees being encouraged to buzz around: “come on bee – you can do it – lots of lovely pollen on this oilseed rape….. oh, you’ve died.”

And so to the culmination of all this questioning, obfuscation and confusion: Question 10.

UK farmers currently get payments (funded by UK taxpayers) back from the European Union for growing food and looking after the environment. Once we leave the European Union, do you think taxpayers should or should not continue to fund these activities?

Bear in mind a number of subliminal messages have already been inserted in the lead up to this question. Farmers are part of the British “way of life”, we need to produce more food to feed a hungry world, GM crops are good, we need to grow GM crops, we are now calling them gene edited crops (repeat after me), these are even safer, farmers look after nature by planting trees, building clean ponds and encouraging bees….

Also note that the question implies that the CAP funding for farmers is split equitably between support for growing food and looking after the environment. This is of course rubbish. In fact there no direct support for growing food, and hasn’t been since 2004. Farmers can receive the money and produce no food at all – look at the £4M paid to Grouse Moor Owners, who only have to do some “sheep management” to get the money. Or indeed the Saudi Prince who received £400,000 last year in CAP payments  for his Suffolk stud farm. Only about 20% of the CAP pot paid out in the UK goes directly towards projects that help the environment generally, and less than that is spent specifically on nature. Very little at all is spent on planting trees.

41% agreed that “Once we leave the European Union, taxpayers should continue to fund these activities – both growing food and looking after the environment are two things which are far too important to lose”

11% felt the focus should be primarily on the environment

21% felt the focus should be primarily on food production

9% felt the money should be spent elsewhere

16% didn’t know.

This was confusingly reported in Farmers Weekly as  “three quarters of the public believe farmers should continue to be subsidised by the taxpayer.”

Actually only 41% much less than half, felt that farmers should continued to be paid to grow food and look after the environment. Looking  a bit deeper, the figure was only 35% for 18-24 year olds, compared with 45% for 55-64 year olds.

Support from those who wanted a focus on support for the environment also varied greatly. 17% of 18-24 year olds wanted most spent on the environment, compared with 7% in the 65+ bracket; and 16% of those living in the Eastern region support this.

For those wanting more of an emphasis on food production, the largest proportion (29%) were over 65, while an equal number of 18-24 year olds wanted a focus on food as a focus on the environment.

Quite a significant number of people didn’t want subsidies of any kind to continue – 13% of 35-54 year olds. I guess they were thinking about things like the need to support education and health care. that figure dropped dramatically to 6% for the 55-64 year olds and 7% for over 65’s.

22% of 18-24 year olds did not know what they thought but only 12% of the over 65’s.

Apart from a reasonably clever bit of spin by Bayer (who are in the middle of a $66Bn take over of GM and Glyphosate manufacturers Monsanto), what else does this survey tell us?

I take heart from the thought that young people across society appear to care quite seriously about the relationship between nature and farming. And I think that the views of the over 65’s are heavily influenced by memories of the war, rationing and as I call it the “u-boats in the channel” approach to food security. Whereas there is no place for this imagery in modern day Britain, for a generation, this was reality, and we should not forget it.

Posted in agriculture, agrochemicals, bees, biodiversity, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Farmland nature is in intensive care

A week has past and I’m still at home. I finished my latest course of antibiotics yesterday (yay) and am drug-free for the first time in 3 weeks, for which I am very thankful. Now I need to start work restoring my gut flora. The thought gives a slightly different perspective on the phrase “People Need Nature”, but our internal ecology is as much part of who we are, as the external nature that lives around us.

Latest estimates suggest that for every human cell in our bodies, there is a bacteria living with us.  Some are helpers, many just along for the ride, and a few mean us harm (as I have found out.)

So many thoughts have been pinging around my head while I have been unable to do anything else, that I probably have 10 blogs worth to write. But I thought I’d start by following up from the State of Nature launch and the role of intensive farming in the loss of nature from England’s farmland. I wrote about the launch what seems like years ago now, but was actually only 6 weeks ago.

What do we actually mean by intensive farming? Rural commentator, surveyor and serial writer of letters to the Times, Rob Yorke, pointed me towards an interesting paper from Rob Fuller, Paul Dolman and colleagues, recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. In the paper, the authors question our preconceptions of what the semi-natural really is.

What is the semi-natural? For those unfamiliar with the phrase, the semi-natural or semi-natural habitats are those which have evolved as a result of human activity (usually agriculture or forestry) in such a way that at least some wildlife still flourishes while the land produces food, fuel etc. Semi-natural habitats include  flowery hay meadows, ancient woodlands, wood pasture, lowland heathlands, chalk downlands, arable fields with farmland birds and arable weeds, ponds, moorland and so on.

The authors of the paper suggest that what we now think of as the semi-natural is very different from what was actually going on on farmland before 1750. They use 1750 as a cut-off because around that time a complex set of changes started to take place in land use which “resulted in a massive reduction in the extent and quality of habitats.”

They rightly point out that farming underwent a significant period of intensification during the late 18th and early 19th century. Superphosphate for example was first manufactured in 1843 in Deptford, in response to the rapid exhaustion of “British” guano deposits off the coast of Namibia.  And of course even before that, farming could have been said to have been pretty intensive. Downlands were grazed by sheep until there was literally no grass left, commons were grazed as much as commoners could get away with. Heathlands were grazed hard, gorse was cut for bread ovens, peat was cut for fuel, gravel was dug when needed for building work or roads. You can imagine the scene.

This is all a far cry from the careful – not to say kid-gloved management of modern “semi-natural” nature reserves. And as the authors point out, the losers of this approach are those species which depend on things like irregular disturbance. The technical word is heterogeneity, but patchiness is just as good. Many species depend on disturbance at different scales (think a bare patch of ground a foot across, up to landscape patchiness over hundreds of square miles)  and over different periods of time – from a few months to decades (perhaps even centuries).

Juniper is a great example of this, which I spent quite a long time studying and working on its conservation (all the reports used to be on the Plantlife website but it looks like they have gone now). The seeds from mature juniper bushes need bare ground to germinate, but once they germinated they then need to be protected from being grazed off. In the long past this would have been achieved through occasional heavy grazing – which is why they did well on places like downlands, commons and heathland – places which would have been grazed very hard, then left for a long time before being grazed hard again. It’s likely that larger scale historic events – the agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Agricultural Depression of the 1870s, the subsequent Agricultural Depression of the 1930s and the wholesale decline in rabbit grazing after the introduction of Myxomatosis in the 1950s, provided the big scale changes in grazing patterns that allowed waves of juniper populations to appear. Needless to say nothing has happened on this scale since the 1950s and the Junipers born then are now moribund and past reproductive age.

So it’s fair to say that there was plenty of “intensity” going on in farming in the past. Can anyone therefore claim that intensive farming, or intensification of farming, has caused nature to disappear from farmland?

NFU Vice President Guy Smith thinks not. In a recent opinion piece for Farmers Weekly, “Farmers take intensive care of countryside”, Smith railed against this accusation.

Farming has got less intense over the past 25 years, according to Smith, based on some rather crude metrics – kilo’s of pesticide used, areas of crops, numbers of stock kept. Smith suggests that, as British farmers are the best at fusing conservation and production,  increasing food production here will create a net benefit for global biodiversity, by displacing production elsewhere in the world.

There is some truth to the notion that if we produce less food here and import more, without worrying about where that food comes from, then we could be responsible for more environmental damage. But there are so many interlocking variables as to make that calculation an extremely complex one, far from the crude maths Smith applies.

Has farming become less intense in the last 25 years? It depends on which way you measure it. Glyphosate (round-up) use has increased by 400% in the UK over the last 20 years. Maize production has grown exponentially during the same period.

p1040943

Maize for biogas grown in the Dorset AONB ©Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neonicotiniod pesticides weren’t being used at all 20 years ago. Now their use is widespread and their impact on insect life is increasingly being shown to be devastating.

But there’s a bigger issue here.

While on some level it could be argued that farming is less intensive than it was 25 years ago, is this even the right time frame to be discussing the issue? The main loss of semi-natural habitats took place from 1950 to 1970, just at the time when all the major recording schemes for things like farmland birds, for example, started. Dramatic though they are, the declines from 1970, detailed in State of Nature and elsewhere, only show a small part of the graph.

I would tentatively suggest that intensive farming may not be the right phrase to use to describe the reasons why farmland now has next to no wildlife in it. As Fuller, Dolman et al show in their paper, we now only have a small subset of the much wider spectrum of semi-natural habitats that existed pre 1840 (or 1750 – the cut-off date is pretty arbitrary).

While the area of land that supported nature hadn’t diminished particularly in the two centuries from 1750 to 1950, the types of habitat did shift. But their analysis ignores the fact that other places were created that at least provided a part replacement – in the new industrial landscapes – the legacy of which is now still with us on brownfield land. And while the authors are right to state

“the kinds of complex ‘traditional’ land management systems .. had largely disappeared in England before the adoption of modern, chemical-based farming systems in the middle decades of the twentieth century”

it’s also true to say that the losses of semi-natural habitat of any kind, since 1950 for example, have far outweighed the losses of semi-natural habitat quality, in terms of their impact on the nature of farmland generally.

Where does this leave us? Do we need to find an alternative lexicon to describe the reasons behind the loss of nature from farmland?

We certainly do need to continue to challenge the propaganda that Guy Smith, Robin Page et al put out, that somehow nature has disappeared from the farmed landscape due to other reasons – predators for example, or urban development.

No-one has yet managed to explain to me how 97% of wildflower meadows, or 75% of chalk downland, has disappeared in 70 years thanks to predators. And urban development still only covers 12% of England.

Whatever words we use, the facts are the same. Modern farming methods, together and individually, have caused nature to disappear from the farmed countryside. Nature on farmland is now in intensive care. And we don’t know whether the patient will pull through or not.

 

Posted in agriculture, agrochemicals, Intensive Farming | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

Owen Paterson is not fit for purpose

img_1212

lots of water and antibiotics

It’s probably no exaggeration to say the NHS saved my life last week.

I had been having some odd pains for about a month which eventually turned out to be a kidney stone. This is unimaginably painful unless you have had one (and now I realise many people have.) The stone wasn’t playing ball (sorry) and got stuck, blocking the flow of urine from one kidney, causing a kidney infection that was rapidly turning into sepsis. I had an operation to bypass the stone and was pumped full of antibiotics. I have been in and out of our local hospital quite a few times over the past 10 days and have nothing but praise for our overworked nurses, doctors and support staff. I am now back at home.

No, the NHS is not perfect, by any means.

The number of times I saw hospital staff (and GPs) struggling with IT systems which seemed to go on the blink all too often, was surprising. I also saw doctors having to make difficult decisions about who to keep in (taking up precious beds) and who to send home. The collapse in social care services makes it much more difficult to send home patients who are well enough, if they have home support. The 111 phone services were always stretched, and the ambulance which eventually arrived to take me into A and E turned out to be a paramedic car, in the front seat of which I sat (dosed on morphine) to be transported.

But everyone I encountered was kind, helpful and did all they could to make me better.

This experience is still rather fresh in my mind – I’m still on extra strength antibiotics, am probably still fighting off some nasty bugs;  have some new plumbing (a uretal stent) and I still have the stone, to be dealt with at a later date. I’m unable to do anything else for quite a while, other than sit in front of a computer; and waddle to the loo all too often.

And then I noticed our old friend Owen Paterson, former Secretary of State against the Environment, has published a report today, under the banner of his secretively funded “think tank” UK 2020.

The report, “The UK health system – an international comparison of health outcomes” was written by Kristian Niemietz of the corporate libertarian think-tank the Institute of Eeconomic Affairs (the IEA), about which I have written many times. Niemietz may be a clever person, but he is not a health economist or any kind of health academic. The paper is not peer-reviewed and I have no idea whether the approach, comparing something called amenable mortality, across different countries, has any basis in science or statistical validity.

But the IEA have been regularly promoting the idea that NHS should be broken up and sold off. This unbiased piece, for example from Dr Niemietz – “Those who oppose NHS privatisation are really opposed to patient choice” gives a flavour of the position they take.

Niemitz is evidently working on a project of some considerable scope for the IEA, funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton are well known for supporting projects which link christianity and science, though in this case the Templeton Foundation may well be continuing a very long standing mutual friendship that started with the founders of both organisations – Antony Fisher and John Templeton, both members of the right-libertarian Mont Pelerin Society.

I find it useful to check how many times a report author cites their own (non peer-reviewed) papers. For this UK2020 report, Niemietz self refers to no less than five other IEA-published papers he wrote himself. By comparison Niemietz neglects to reference a key paper from the Office for National Statistics in 2010 which concluded that

“there is insufficient evidence on how much of the decline in amenable mortality can be attributed to the healthcare system.” (Kamarudeen 2010 )

Niemitz was “borrowed” by UKIP2020 from the IEA to write the report, apparently. Conveniently, both thinktanks operate out of exactly the same building, 55 Tufton Street – along with a whole load of other right wing “free market” libertarian outfits – as described in this excellent infographic from earlier this year.

Let’s assume (just for arguments sake) that what the report says is true – that the NHS is not as good at achieving preventable deaths from cancer, stroke, heart disease etc as other countries’ healthcare systems. The report makes no attempt to investigate why this might be.

  • Could it be that the NHS is being starved of resources by a Government hell bent on breaking it up and selling it off to their mates?
  • Could it be that the NHS staff morale is sinking like a stone (sorry) because the Health Secretary is attacking them and forcing them to sign contracts they know will threaten patient health?
  • Could it be that the fake NHS internal market created by this Government has only created lots of jobs for managers, who actually make it more difficult for health care professionals to do their jobs and help people get better?
  • Could it be that the creeping privatisation of services within the NHS is actually making the whole organisation work less effectively.

It could be all or none of these things, but the report isn’t interested in the whys and wherefores, it’s mission is to rubbish the NHS, in comparison with other countries.

The report claims that it has no interest in identifying what sort of solutions would help improve the NHS. Fortunately for us Owen Paterson has about as much ability to stay on message as Donald Trump on crystal meth.

Paterson, writing on the Conservative Home website this morning boldly announced that

“it’s time to face up to the grim truth – the NHS isn’t fit for purpose.”

Now one might think that Paterson was only interested in helping develop a new national health system that was the envy of the world, for purely altruistic reasons. Until that is, I point out to you that the report was sponsored by Randox Laboratories.

Randox is a private healthcare company, based in Northern Ireland, where Paterson was shadow secretary of state for a while. Here’s Paterson being vigorously lobbied by Randox back in 2011 – when Randox called for “red tape” strangling innovation to be removed.

Paterson obviously got on well with Randox founder and owner Peter Fitzgerald as they both love horses. Perhaps that’s why Randox made Paterson their President in 2015, for which he now receives over £4000 a month for around 8 hours work. And he’s a regular guest (all expenses paid) at the Randox international Polo festival.

Randox are also the new sponsor of the Grand National and now provide healthcare to the Jockey Club.

Randox also supply 1 in 10 of the world’s cholesterol checks. Randox have recently opened a load of new clinics where you can go and pay for lots of medical tests.

image-one-1024x664

Randox: “a world leader in clinical diagnostic solutions”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As to whether you need them or not is another matter. After all, as Dr Niemietz says, patient choice is the most important thing, right? well actually, no – funnily enough the experts ie the doctors and other healthcare professionals in the NHS have spent years training and are paid to make those difficult decisions, obviously in consultation with the patients.

With that in mind, today a group of Royal Colleges published “choosing wisely” which identified a range of unnecessary medical procedures and tests. One of those identified is the Prostate cancer PSA test.

As the Royal College of Pathologists puts it:

Unless a patient is at risk of prostate cancer because of race or family history, PSA-based screening does not lead to a longer life.

But Randox have developed a really clever new cheap Prostate PSA test, which simply must be used – it says so in the Daily Mail so it must be true.

It turns out that the NHS is wasting money doing lots of procedures and tests which are pointless at best, and in some cases (including diagnostic testing) may actually do more harm than good.

And politicians like Owen Paterson, who are supposed to be acting in the public interest, appear to be promoting private healthcare, for their own personal gain.

Posted in NHS, Owen Paterson, Randox Laboratories | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments

Jam Tomorrow

Feeling rather sorry for myself for having succumbed to, what for me is a nasty cold (verging on man flu), I was restricted yesterday to watching the Tory Party Conference.

What gems and treasures lay strewn across its shiny (though not rhubarb-rubbed) floors.

Our near neo-Leaderene Andrea Leadsom spoke – her first speech since taking on the Defra mantle.

Andrea_Leadsom_MP

“there is this much air in my speech”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She spoke of the brave new world of FREE TRADE, following Brexit.

Apparently we already export coffee to Brazil, fizzy wine to France, and Naan Bread to India. Did you know? nor did I – nor did anyone. Even more imaginatively, she praised one particular entrepreneur who is “bottling” Dorset air and selling it to the Chinese for £80 a bottle. No-one can find any evidence that we actually do export coffee to Brazil, and even if we did send Naan to India, is this a good thing?

There were other bizarre moments, when she attempted to get down with the Yoof, talking about the difficulty of accessing her Pokemon Go account, due to poor mobile reception in her leafy constituency of South Northants.

What about the meat? where were the big policy announcements?  There weren’t any.

Farmers desperately worried that they will be driven out of business by FREE TRADE, because the EU tariffs and quotas that had kept cheap meat from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, are at risk of being abandoned, will probably be more worried today than before Leadsom let out the air from her personal policy jar.

Everything will be alright though shh, go back to sleep.

Because there’s going to be a 25 year food and farming plan, and a 25 year nature plan (why split the two apart – does food not come from nature?). And these plans will tell us all how it will all be sorted out. There’s only one problem. Article 50 will be invoked in about 4 months time, after which Ms Leadsom and her civil servants have two years (24 months for the hard of counting) to work out exactly what sort of tariff and quota regime will be put in place. – and then put it in place, with a (transitional) system of farm support to replace the Common Agricultural Policy. So 2 years into the 25 year plan, it will all need to be re-written.

As a way of preparing the shell-shocked British public for her speech, the previous day she had suggested that British people should pick fruit, instead of the 45,000 people, mostly from Eastern Europe, who currently pick our fruit and veg. It’s not clear whether our children know that the consequences of not doing well in their GCSE’s is now a life of fruit picking, but perhaps now is the time to introduce fruit picking into the National Curriculum, to prepare them for their future careers. After all, the Government is on the hunt for producers of Innovative Jams, to export to France. Presumably this is because the French have already rumbled our secret plan to sell them tins of fresh air.

I have an innovative jam idea. Leadsom promised that 11 million trees would be planted – many of them in school grounds, by 2020. Now we all know the problems that large trees close to buildings can cause, so why not plant 11 million fruit trees in school grounds? Then the children could learn to pick fruit, while being at school. And if Jam making was also part of the National Curriculum, then Innovative Jam could be literally oozing out of every school in the country, on its way to France. We could build a Jam Interconnector, from Poole to Cherbourg, to facilitate the flow.

img_1205

Innovative Jam

 

 

On a more serious note, Leadsom managed to get at least two mentions of her mantra into the speech:

the claim is that the Tory Government is committed to being “the first generation to leave it in a better state than we found it.”

the claim raises far more questions than it answers.

Was the environment lost, in order for it to be found? Where did the Tories find the Environment – down the back of the sofa? Where are they going to leave it, once they’ve done whatever it is they’re going to do with it. I can see a series of written questions evolving.

As an indication of just how much Leadsom has grasped her brief, she made a powerful statement about how many children have not visited a Greenspace in the last 12 months (one in 9 since you ask), but then utterly flunked it by suggesting that it was easy to plug these nature-deprived children into nature because

“Two thirds of people live within 30 minutes of a National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

Yes Leadsom clearly believes that the vast acreages of Maize for example, in the Dorset AONB, qualify as green space where children can recharge their nature batteries. They do not.

On the 25 year nature plan, Leadsom gave us another indication of the depth of her reading over the Summer.

“I’m truly excited that our departure from the EU means we can develop policies that are tailored to our most precious habitats and wildlife – not a one size fits all approach for 28 Member States.

It’s this opportunity we’ll be seizing as we work on our ambitious 25 Year Plan for the environment, using nature’s own building blocks of water catchments and landscapes to benefit our plants and animals.”

Leaving aside the pros and cons of leaving the EU Directives, I was intrigued, or just confused by her language on the 25 year nature plan. Now working on a catchment basis makes sense and I am sure we will be hearing much more about that in the coming months. But Landscapes? Using nature’s own building blocks of landscapes? What does this even mean? The only thing I can think of is that the Government is going to use the existing AONB/ National Park designation system as a framework for the 25 year plan. Hardly a new idea, given that these things were created in 1949. Also, don’t catchments extend into protected landscapes?

I had worried that with the demise of Owen Paterson, we would no longer get any comedy gold from Tory Environment Secretaries. It seems I was mistaken. Happy Days.

 

 

Posted in Andrea Leadsom, Common Agricultural Policy, Conservative Party Conference | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Time to Put Chemical Farming Indoors by Chris Rose

I’m republishing this (with permission) from Chris Rose’s Three Worlds blog.

 

Time to put Chemical Farming Indoors

A current side-effect of the prospect of Brexit is that Britain’s* green, countryside and wildlife groups are in an unusual fever of activity.  A quite frantic process of policy formulation is underway as they scramble to try and influence what Brexit might mean for Britain’s farming, because Brexit means decoupling UK agriculture from the infamous Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Yet unless they are prepared to play much harder politics than they have for decades, and are a lot more radical in their proposals so that they engage a much wider slice of society, it is well-nigh certain that the promise of the moment will simply be lost.  For much of our wildlife, Brexit would still probably mean exit.

 

The Smart Money Must Be on Business as Usual

Dozens of NGOs are meeting in layers of committees and networks convened by the Green Alliance and others.  They will cook up proposals which will no doubt include well-researched wish-lists of what should be done: rather more of this, quite a bit less of that.  Yet at the same time and without fanfare, the dark suited officials of the Treasury, without whom in the end nothing much will be done, are in frequent contact with the brown-shoed reps of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the slightly more dapper folk from the Country Landowners Association (CLA), to discuss practicalities.

I hear that No 10 has signalled to the ‘green groups’ that it is interested in ‘innovative’ ideas for the future of the 70% of the country under agriculture, and not simply cheaper ideas.   A cynic might suggest that keeping the NGOs busy developing innovative ideas has the twin benefits of stopping them causing trouble, and at the same time possibly coming up with a few eye-catching embellishments to policy which prove Brexit had a green lining after all.  The smart money must be on an outcome which is close to Business as Usual.

Government does not need to seize this inter-generational opportunity for change if it does not want to, and at the moment I doubt it feels it needs to.   I’m told that some arch Brexiteer politicians privately say it would be relatively simple to pass a law which simply carries over most of the EU CAP systems of farm support albeit with different names for programmes.  This would avoid a spat over ‘farming’ becoming an obstacle in the bigger, more headline-grabbing Brexit negotiation tangles over things like immigration, free movement and market access.

There certainly are Conservative politicians who would like to see a radical change towards more ‘sustainable’ forms of agriculture, and there are Conservative advocates for a Natural Capital approach, and some who would agree with the former Conservative Minister who pithily described CAP as ‘the engine of destruction’.  Yet pro-nature, pro-conservation reform of the countryside is nowhere close to being a government priority.  De-coupling from CAP to go green on farming and countryside is not an opportunity government currently needs or wants to take.

If the CAP was being radically reformed without Brexit, it would be different.  That would be the main game.  But it is not.  The main game for the UK Conservative Government is engineering a Brexit they can sell, and in that, countryside, farming and wildlife is a very small side-show.  So just because this is the biggest thing that has happened in the agri-environmental world for decades, does not necessarily mean it’s really a big opportunity, unless it becomes a problem the government needs to solve with a change of course.  Well-mannered wish lists will not be disruptive.

Three Things That Need To Happen

To my mind three things are needed in order for any Brexit process to catalyse a significant shift towards a radically better UK farming and countryside policy.  They need to come together but are to reset the purpose of public agriculture policy in the modern public interest, to end chemical and energy intensive as a failed experiment with no place in the wide outdoors, and to democratize decision making about the countryside.

A Modern Public Interest Purpose for Farming and Countryside Policy

When it was invented, support of farm incomes through price support, and the consolidation of holdings and subsidy of infrastructure changes (eg pull up hedges) so that farms could modernize and make use of new inputs of energy, fertiliser and chemicals, was seen as in the public interest.   It’s not now.

So policy should be reset is based on an updated test of the public interest, one that requires gains not losses in ecological and human health:  better ecosystem function (eg progressively less chemical pollution and climate changing emissions) and more wildlife, rather than the current payment for farmers-to-be-farmers, which mainly means farming-as-usual.   I call it net ecological gain.   This is an elite level argument but one where a much wider range of NGOs than just the countryside and wildlife groups have some standing, as channels and representatives of the wider public interest.

Containment of Intensive Farming

Second comes a complete break with chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farming.  The 1960-70s style ‘green revolution’ of intensification is an experiment which has proved a largely unmitigated disaster, and it needs to be ended.  As a Friends of the Earth pesticides campaigner in the early 1980s, I met large numbers of people at the sharp end of intensive chemical farming:  for instance people whose health had been ruined by exposure to farm sprays, sometimes just by living or walking in the countryside; doctors concerned at rates of rural cancers; others whose homes and gardens had been contaminated, and one memorable group of intensive arable farmers who were taking turns to grow food to feed their own families, without the use of chemicals, because they were so worried about the pesticides they used commercially.   It seemed to me that this was an industrial chemical process allowed to be conducted outdoors, simply because society, especially the media and politicians, still saw rural areas as benign and pre-industrial because they looked ‘green’.

 

Society was promised more precision biological pest control such as ‘Integrated Pest Management’, and high tech, less polluting agrochemical applications such as systemic insecticides which would stay inside a living plant.  That’s where we got the now notorious neonicotinoid pesticides for which there is abundant evidence that they have been eliminating bees and very likely many other insects, and are all over the place in the environment, cycling through soil and water and living things.   As the recent UK State of Nature report demonstrated, the massive loss of bees, butterflies, moths, wild plants and birds has not stopped but overall gets worse, year on year.  We have shifted from ‘the problem’ mostly being outright habitat destruction such as grubbing up old hedgerows and meadows, partly because there are very few left to destroy.  Now the problem includes a countryside infused with pollution from artificial fertiliser which itself is eliminating natural diversity of plants and pollinators, plus the vast greenhouse emissions of intensive agriculture, and the prophylactic application of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide which is sterilising and polluting the countryside, for example with 20 applications on a single crop.

 

Seeing the impact of CAP, it has been reformed by the EU.  Structural or “Pillar 2” funds have been redirected into ‘agri-environment’ schemes.   Sometimes valiant and sometimes frankly tokenistic attempts have been made to use these funds to mitigate against the combined effect of technology x chemicals x energy, all underpinned by price support and then farm payments, but overall they have failed.  Not really surprising when such ‘agri-environment’ funds make up only 20% of the total farm subsidies, and are relatively recent, and the progressive sterilisation of farmland has left many farmers ignorant of wildlife and wild plants that would have been known and understood by their grandparents.

If intensive chemical farming is needed, then like other hazardous industrial processes, it should be only done indoors, where it can be properly monitored and controlled, with zero emissions.  Let he agrochemical industry find ways to make a profit from that, maybe by converting from being bulk chemical providers to fine chemicals, service providers and even industrial farmers themselves.  Any outdoor farming, including organic, should have to prove itself to be ecologically not just benign but beneficial.

 

Ironically, much leading edge food production is already moving indoors, although usually without much if any use of chemicals, and driven by market forces and consumer concerns over health, environmental impact, limited resources such as water, and animal welfare.  Examples include ‘Vertical Farms’, ‘Z-farming’, the rapidly growing creation of meat substitutes and foods catering for Flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians.  Many of these are proven technologies in a world of start-ups and emerging consumer trends, noticed by supermarkets but largely ignored by the conventional farming, countryside and the wildlife policy community.

Democratization Of Countryside Policy

Third, and essential to bring about the above, we need to change who gets to make decisions about the 70% of Britain which is ‘countryside’.  Not just to enfranchise the 80% who live in towns and cities but the over 99% who do not own or control farms.  Only 0.45% of the UK population are farmers.  A mere 0.25% of the people own the countryside.  Yet this is the public realm, and their incomes are hugely reliant on public subsidy.  What’s missing is something that NGOs could do something to help bring about: ways to engage the 99.5% who neither own nor control their countryside.

This wider public does think it has something to say and a right to say it, concerning ‘Green Belt’.  That’s because the British version of Green Belt is a development-planning mechanism and planning is not left to whoever happens to be a big property developer or landowner.  We don’t let the Duke of Westminster decide how to run London.  We should not let farmers and landowners substitute for democracy in deciding the future of the countryside just because they happen to own it or farm it.

A decade ago I suggested a system of ‘Countryside Contracts’ through which groups of farmers might do a legally binding deal with groups of non-farmers to farm their land in ways that both could live with.  Community Supported Agriculture is another example.  Many other ‘crowd sourced’ formats might be possible.   Elected Local Authorities might become the conduits for public funds for farming and land use, starting for example where the public interest in land use is heavily recreational as in National Parks or where better flood prevention is important.

Unlocking Other Forces

If you took these changes together; the public interest purpose of policy, a containment of intensive farming, and a democratization of who gets to decide the countryside, then many other interests could come into play.   For one thing, it could free up a lot of land for other purposes, many of which could help solve political problems, such as places to build new homes.  (Fortunately the popularity of golf courses is waning).

 

‘Rewilding’ could also benefit.  Thanks to Friends of the Earth I recently I visited the amazing Knepp rewilding project in Sussex, started by the remarkable Charlie Burrell back in 2001.  With growing populations of wildlife such as nightingales and turtle doves which are still vanishing in almost all of the countryside including on most of the ‘conservation estate’ run by NGOs, Knepp is inspirational and arguably, an embarrassment to the conservation establishment.  The supply of landowners like Charlie Burrell is limited but more important, the rewilding concept has the Zeitgeist: it captures a public interest demand in a simple sounding concept which many of the 99.5% instinctively love.  Yet so far their leverage on this wider debate about possible post Brexit post CAP farming is effectively zero.  Sounding off about rewilding is one thing but channelling that energy into a concrete demand could make a real difference.  Ecological guru E O Wilson recently called for 50% of the planet to be set aside to save 80% of the remaining wildlife in the world.  How about  50% of our farmland, which is 35% of the UK ?

 

Conclusion

If the coming environmental proposals for a post-Brexit UK countryside and farming policy are not  simply to be ploughed under, the conservation groups have to disrupt the transition of Business as Usual which the NFU and CLA have been lobbying for in Whitehall with all the vigour of recently released beavers.

This is the NGOs moment to involve the country, not just their members and certainly not just their experts.  The CAP-shedding aspect of Brexit may be an unexpected Christmas for countryside policy wonks but without popular and activated political backing they may end up playing the turkeys.

I am not that optimistic about the UK NGOs pulling off a major coup and really redirecting national policy on farming and the countryside although if they did, it could inspire similar changes in the rest of Europe, even if Brexit happens.

A significant internal problem is the competition between NGOs.  The National Trust for example, as the elephant of the pack with its four million members and itself the biggest farmer in the country, has got in early and issued a six point list of principles.  These are not bad and probably radical by internal National Trust terms in that they imply that some of its own farmland will go over to nature, and they explicitly call for no public money to be spent that does not pay for ‘public goods’ and that ‘basic income support payment should be removed’.  Their list has enraged the NFU but will not be noticed by the wider public: some much sharper demands are needed that affect how the 99.5% live, and the countryside they see, in ways non-experts can understand.

Other big players like the RSPB might also be tempted not to wait for the swathe of smaller groups to agree on a common set of demands, and so produce its own wish list.  The difficulty is less that these lists don’t ‘add up’ but more that it drains the energy of their joint lobby.

A further issue is that the established conservation and wildlife groups – much less so other NGOs which may get involved – make themselves beholden to the ‘goodwill’ of farmers.  In reality the ‘good farmers’ they actively work with and promote are at best a few percent of the total.  Great though these people are, this too often ends up meaning that the NGOs are terrified of opposing the NFU.

Finally, rehearsing and dusting down the old arguments will not disrupt the process and so make a radical shift a possibility.  Unless civil society has something new to say, and enough of the groups get behind a few new ideas which have public resonance, they will not create the political problem which requires the government to listen to people, the 99.5%, rather than to just the NFU and the CLA.

* Actually for Britain read UK as all this includes Northern Ireland which while not ‘Britain’ is part of the UK

chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

Posted in agriculture, Brexit, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Rampisham Down Saved?

thumb_P1040207_1024

Rampisham Down Radio Mast ©Miles King

There has been some good news about Rampisham Down and its future. The developers British Solar Renewables have resubmitted their proposals to develop a smaller (but still highly profitable) solar farm on arable land adjacent to the SSSI, so that they can make use of the high voltage electricity connection to the national grid – which was there to supply electricity to the Short Wave Radio Transmitting Station, and was one of the things that made Rampisham Down so attractive as a  site for a Solar Farm in the first place.

When they originally submitted this application for land adjacent to the SSSI, they had not ruled out going to Public Inquiry (due to start this month) to win the argument so they could develop on the SSSI. Things have changed.

In the  revised application they now state that they will mitigate the impact of the new Solar Farm by removing all but three of the remaining Masts; remove or mitigate the impact of the Solar infrastructure already installed on the SSSI; conclude the pending agreement of the SSSI management strategy and landscape restoration plan for the SSSI.

So the developers have accepted that, in order for them to get permission to build their smaller solar farm across the road, they will not proceed with the development on the SSSI. To show willing, BSR have also asked for the Public Inquiry to be put “on hold”, according to Natural England. This is good news all round, as Public Inquiries are very expensive and organisations like Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust have better things to do with their funds.

What could possibly have led to such a change of heart from British Solar Renewables? Could the leading players have seen the light and recognised that it was the epitome of unsustainable business practice and hypocrisy to destroy a national wildlife treasure, in order to create some low carbon energy? Possibly, but there are other alternatives.

Regular readers may remember that the pro-Rampisham propaganda site http://www.rampishamdown.com had gone “off air” earlier this year. It turns out that the reason for this was because the people running it, under the guise of Community Heat and Power (a wholly owned subsidiary of British Solar Renewables) had had some sort of falling out with BSR, and left. Shortly afterwards BSR founder Angus MacDonald was removed from, or voluntarily left, the board of the business. The key players who had so bullishly promoted the solar farm at Rampisham Down were no longer on the field.

This is all good news and the people now in charge at BSR should be praised for their sensible approach, to work with Natural England to find a way forward which satisfies their business need (to develop a solar farm that can provide a good return on the investment made by purchasing Rampisham Down and its grid connection) and society’s need to protect national heritage for all our benefits.

This does rather a few questions in my mind unanswered. What does the distinguished former director of Kew Gardens Professor Ghillean Prance, think about the new development? He was happy to go on public record stating that the solar farm on the SSSI would help restore the “severely damaged” grassland. Given that the new solar farm will be smaller than the original plan, and go on arable land (removing its capacity to produce cereal crops) is this a concern for him? Is he worried that the much vaunted experiments into the impact of shading by solar panels on semi-natural grassland have been long abandoned (and thereby shown up for the greenwash they always were).

What about local District Councillor Jill Haynes, who was so enthusiastic with her support for the original scheme. Will she welcome or condemn this new proposal, given that it is a smaller development than the one she had championed.

It would be great to get some comments from either of these people. While we’re waiting for their views, I suggest that as many people as possible get behind the revised application for the new solar farm. You can comment directly to West Dorset District Council here.

The important thing is that the Council must ensure that the application is only given permission on the basis that a legal agreement is drawn up between BSR and Natural England over the future management (ie no development of the SSSI) of Rampisham Down.

Posted in Rampisham Down, renewable energy, Solar Farms | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Nature of our State

I was looking forward to attending the State of Nature launch, but decided in the end to stay at home at get on with some writing that is now becoming urgent. But despite my noble intentions, I became swept up in the excitement and spent too much time on social media, debating what it all meant.

The State of Nature report shows what we already know, that our nature is disappearing, particularly from farmed landscapes. I’d go further and suggest nature has disappeared (to all intents and purposes) from many farmed landscapes. I read through the report and saw ever more detailed analysis of data stretching back decades. There really is no question about what has happened or is happening. If I had one gripe with the report, it is that, once again, the focus is all on birds and mammals. Practically all of the case studies, that make up the bulk of the report, apply to these two groups. Even the photo released for use with the story was of a hedgehog. It’s a great image, laden with symbolism.

state-of-nature

 

 

 

 

When the BBC reported it, they felt duty bound to provide “balance”, getting the NFU to respond. NFU responded in typical manner – misdirection (it’s predators), obfuscation and denial. NFU attacked the report for suggesting that farming was continuing to intensify. NFU vice president Guy Smith claimed:

“However, since the early 1990s, in terms of inputs and in terms of numbers of livestock and area of crops grown British agriculture has not intensified – in fact it’s the reverse. Therefore it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to ‘the intensification of agriculture’ in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn’t been any.”

Reading through the State of Nature report, there is no mention of intensification of farming, though evidently it was discussed in the interviews. So NFU created a straw man to knock down. Farming isn’t getting more intensive – its the opposite, therefore farmers must be the custodians of nature now. But of course that depends on how you define intensification. Weight for weight, less insecticides are used now than 30 years ago, but that’s because neonicotinoids are so deadly they are only used in tiny amounts, not sprayed on to whole plants, but as a coating for seeds, which are then spread throughout the plant as it grows. And ever more damning evidence points to the impact of Neonics on insect populations, with obvious knock on effects for insect eating birds and mammals. Glyphosate use has increased by 400% in the last 20 years.  Even if you aren’t convinced that glyphosate is toxic to people (wait for this health time bomb to go off) the impact of this huge increase in its use across the 25% of the UK which is under arable crops, is profound. What few wild plants of arable landscapes that had survived the years of rapid intensification (from the 1950s to 1980s) are now subject to another dose of poison to finish them off.

It strikes me that the BBC should not be providing the NFU the opportunity to use these tactics to undermine the sound science behind the State of Nature report, in the name of “balance”. This tactic was used for decades by Climate Change deniers to undermine the science behind Climate Change. Eventually, after much procrastination, the BBC decided to change its editorial guidance and remove the opportunity for spurious (and malign) challenges to Climate Change science. It’s about time they started applying this “false balance” approach to organisations like the NFU.

But the NFU are far cleverer and have been in the game for longer than anyone else. It can be no coincidence that, on the same day as the State of Nature report was launched, the NFU launched its Back British Farming campaign. They literally parks their tanks ie tractors, on Parliament’s lawn, the grass of Parliament Square. That is a masterclass in the exercise of soft power, if ever I saw one. But they didn’t stop there.

nfu-back-british-general

 

 

 

After the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary had their photos taken in front of the tanks, I mean tractors, the NFU then handed out wheat lapel pins to as many MPs as they could find, in advance of Prime Minister’s Questions. So those of us who were watching, were greeted with visions like this – Craig Williams of Cardiff North proudly showing the country his support for British Farming.

back-british-farming-pmqs

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wheat sheaf or wheat ear is a very powerful symbol and has been used throughout history because of its power and depth of meaning.

persephone

 

 

 

 

From Roman times, here’s Persephone/Demeter/Ceres/Proserpina rising up from the ground holding ears of wheat (and poppies).

The RSPB and their partners in the State of Nature report, presented an excellent, well argued case, backed up with evidence so strong that it cannot be denied.

And the NFU said “Back British Farming”, which in itself means nothing – who would even argue that Britain shouldn’t grow food? And who else would do this than farmers (though the NFU’s vision of farming and farmers is a very narrow one)?

To focus merely on the words misses the point. The NFU used the power of imagery and symbolism to show the political power they wield, to embed in the mind’s of politicians, the media, and even the public, that they are the people to talk to, they have the answers, they have the deep, almost mystical understanding of how things grow, and how we are kept alive and nourished with food. It’s no surprise that organised religion started at the same time as farming and those deep layers of meaning, belief and mysticism around how food is grown (and who grows it) still lie within us all.

Posted in agriculture, NFU, RSPB, State of Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 26 Comments