For the Greater Good

Golden Cap

Golden Cap, Dorset: A public good

Yesterday’s Guardian (or it may have been the Observer) carried an interview with NFU President Peter Kendall, in which Peter observed sagely that climate change is now the biggest threat to British Farming – not through gentle warming, but extreme, volatile and unpredictable weather events.

Well said Peter – now let’s hear Lord Lawson, Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, Roger Scruton and all the other climate change deniers lay into that hotbed of communism the National Farmers Union (the Union bit obviously gives the game away).

Peter then goes on to explain why farmers therefore need all the weapons in the chemical and technological armoury to combat the reality of climate change – including naturally GMOs, neonicotinoids, fungicides etc.

Peter shows some awareness of our current environmental predicament by suggesting that if we have seen no declines in our wildlife or habitats over the next 20 years “that will be a pretty good achievement”. I agree – I think it will be an amazing achievement. But then he blows his bio-credibility by dismissing the results of the “State of Nature” report , saying how wonderful the countryside looks as he travels around it. I guess it depends on what you conceive of as wonderful countryside Peter – since you are an arable baron from Bedfordshire – acre upon acre of cereals would look wonderful to you. But it doesn’t deny the facts of biodiversity decline shown clearly in “State of Nature”.

Then we get to the really interesting bit. When asked about farmers who receive CAP providing any public benefit for the £3 billion a year subsidy they receive, Kendall said this:

“”I think helping farmers manage volatility, extreme weather, climate change and the global distortion of agricultural markets is equally a public good. The danger of saying that the environment is the only public good, is that we pay people not to farm and that really does fly in the face of feeding 63  million people here in the UK.”

Now what is and is not a public good is a matter of debate and undoubtedly there are continuums of public good-ness. Farmers providing habitats for biodiversity (or at least the biodiversity society wants) is a pretty pure public good. It is more debateable as to whether food security at any cost is a public good, given that we are very much a part of a global market in food and can and indeed do buy food from across the world to eat: it doesn’t have to be grown here.

I looked up the seminal report on Public Goods and the Commion Agricultural Policy – produced by IEEP. It’s very long but worth reading if you’re interested. They include in Public Goods things like biodiversity, water provision (quality and quantity), flood prevention, landscape quality, fire prevention and soil health.

The issues are whether goods are non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival goods are those where, if they are consumed by one person, they are still available to others. Non-excludable goods are those that, if available to one person, others cannot be excluded from the benefits. Clearly food in and of itself falls outside both of these definitions, as it can only be consumed once, and is only available to whom the person the farmer sells it . Food security is slightly more complicated – but would only be seen as a public good if there was a food shortage looming in Europe, which there is not.

Kendall suggests that helping farmers by paying them subsidies to mitigate the effects of  price volatility caused by climate change and market distortions are public goods.  He seems to have mixed up “farmers” with “the public”.

Helping farmers financially to buffer the effects of market volatility fail the tests of public goods – if the payments are made to farmers, they are not available to the rest of us (therefore not  non-rival).  Do we as society benefit from farmers protection from market volatility? Cast your mind back to the Butter Mountains and Milk Lakes of the 70s and 80s. These were directly created by exactly that logic – farmers must be paid to produce as much as they possibly can, just in case of some cataclysmic event that might lead to global food shortages. Not surprisingly these were phased out, on account of the damage they caused and their not being needed. No Peter we don’t need any more intervention buying thanks.

Paying farmers to carry out farming in a way that helps society adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change would be a public good. Examples of this might be reducing (or removing) the use of nitrogen fertiliser, because of its role in releasing the most potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Or providing public support for very low intensity livestock farming (which also have biodiversity benefits), because of the major role wildlife-rich grassland soils have in sequestering and storing Carbon. But paying them to buffer the effects of climate change on their businesses? We would all like that wouldn’t we.

I know some of you will rail against any validity in a neoliberal economic model and I make no comment on the rights or wrongs of using a “public goods” model. But if we are going to use this approach, then we need to defend what “public goods” actually means, from those who would happily redefine it for their own benefit.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, anti-environmental rhetoric, biodiversity, carbon storage, climate change, ecosystem services, European environment policy, farming, grazing, neoliberalism, public goods, soils and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to For the Greater Good

  1. ‘Food security is slightly more complicated – but would only be seen as a public good if there was a food shortage looming in Europe, which there is not.’
    Miles – this is a risky statement! Shortage perhaps not, volatility in price and as yet unknown, knock-on effects – who knows?
    Our connection with nature must come via our connection to food. We are all in it together – there is no them & us. Some hard messages, ‘amusingly’ spun perhaps, may need to roost closer to home (financial stick seems to be main reactor for us) for it to have any impact on our consumption.
    Land share; spare is one big debate of the future.
    Just wish I had more time to comment on your blogs!

  2. Pingback: Goodbye Peter Kendall | a new nature blog

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