Health and Harmony: the future of UK Agriculture

Tonight sees the deadline for responses to the Defra (The UK Dept for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Command Paper on future policy for Agriculture.

Despite reading the document carefully I can’t clearly see what the farmer or farm of the future might look like, but I do get a sense of a higher and more demanding regulatory baseline, albeit with an aspiration for it to be administered more sensibly.

Productivity seems to be important (or is that profitability?  Should the two be conflated?) but there are no clear statements on the nature of the productivity improvements – labour productivity? Total Factor Productivity? Capital productivity? In terms of output or value added …..

As a strategy document the Command Paper seems to offer no clear analysis or evaluation of the current ‘state of the industry’ (eg SWOT analysis or the like); little real analysis of the trade environment (PESTEL) or how it might develop post Brexit. There is a kind of acknowledgement that UK farming’s USPs (Unique Selling Points) are about quality and welfare, and its potential to provide ‘public goods’ but is a strategy based on these factors supported by evidence from the marketplace?

This all seems to herald a tough regulatory baseline against which farmers increase the use of automation, Artificial Intelligence and local labour resources, acting cooperatively and with access to a range of insurance products to protect against volatility but with fallback protections from the government against extreme events in which the provision of public goods will somehow be recognised – at the lowest level through compliance requirements, but perhaps through government payments of some sort at higher levels.

The role of the cooperatives may extend to landscape and catchment scale land management. The leading models in terms of current enterprises seem to be pigs and poultry. We can expect to see regression in direct support with the bigger providers potentially seeming to have the most to lose – this looks like an interim period after which all producers will see regular direct payments abolished.  But who can provide more in the way of public goods?  Smallholders or large-scale farmers and land managers?

There is little discussion of husbandry itself, or the more general commercialisation of farming and farmers – a good business focus and discipline would go a long way to addressing many of the omissions from the Command Paper.

This also reflects the absence of commitment to commissioning and using business/market/behavioural/economic research into the industry itself – this would give well informed answers to many of the questions raised. The questions themselves look as if they will limit the scope of consultees’ responses eg the consultation questions on p35 where two lists are offered from which the preferred three options have to be selected from each: what if the bottom three on list one were above your top three on list two?

It looks as if we can expect to see an emphasis on off farm measures – bringing in benefits of public education, health provision, infrastructure, border protections, biosecurity/phytosanitary measures, labour schemes, apprenticeships.  There is not a lot of obvious commitment to agricultural R&D as such.

Business, leadership (HRM), husbandry, science and ethics should be at the core of any future strategy for the industry along with the answers to some basic questions about the role of farming, food production and food self-sufficiency in a modern western economy.  Did you find these in the Command Paper?  I don’t think I did.

A new Agriculture Act is promised.  Perhaps like its 1947 predecessor we need new definitions of good husbandry and sound land management (estate management in the 1947 Act).

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Twenty-five year Environment Plan

First thoughts on today’s 25 year Environment Plan?  Confirmation of the direction of travel we have seen since the Natural Environment White Paper of 2011: The Natural Choice: securing the Value of Nature

The headline points for farmers and land managers: Continue reading “Twenty-five year Environment Plan”

Twenty-five year Environment Plan

The Natural Capital Committee has reported its recommendations for a 25-year Environment Plan.  There are five key sections to this important report:

  1. Vision, ambition and goals
  2. Investment needs
  3. Milestones
  4. Governance
  5. Agricultural subsidies post-Brexit

Twelve goals are offered; these include:

  • Breathable air that achieves international standards;
  • Flood protection by various means including natural flood management to protect everybody against a 0.5% probability of flooding:
  • All inland water to be of good status, and coastal waters all to be good for bathing;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions conforming to international targets, including emissions from land-based activities
  • Access to local greenspace and open recreation for all.  The following goals are suggested:
    • One hectare of local nature reserve per 1,000 people;
    • Two hectares of natural greenspace within 300 m of every home;
    • A 20 ha greenspace within 2 km of every home
    • No suggestion is made that the effect of this has been modelled and compared with the current state of provision.

Turning to investments the report proposes 11 items and these include:

  • 250,000 ha of woodland by 2040;
  • All peat to be in favourable condition;
  • Restoration of hydrological cycles including channel restoration and natural flood management measures;
  • New National Parks (no suggestions as to where);
  • Farm funding to be limited to public goods and high welfare standards;
  • Working closely with Local Nature Partnerships;
  • Developer contributions via planning etc to be pooled for natural capital investment;
  • An enhanced capacity for citizen action and involvement;
  • Natural Capital Net Gain principle which would apply to planning, environmental regulation and public procurement wherever possible;
  • Despite being referred to as investments, none of these are funded or compared with the status quo.

Five year milestones are proposed, which need to be supported by a natural capital risk register; accounting measures; cost benefit appraisal approaches and natural capital balance sheets.  Pp 8 and 9 of the report make particular mention of the private sector in this respect but do not expand on this point.

It is proposed that there should be a State of the Environment Report by 2019 and that this should be updated regularly.  For governance the committee propose that the 25 year Environment Plan should be placed on a statutory footing under the authority of a single organisation, with a separate independent body on the lines of the National Audit Office to report regularly on progress.

The final section is concerned with agricultural policy and is perhaps the vaguest part of the report.  Much is made of the examples of market orientated projects like South West Water’s involvement in Upstream Thinking.  Although the report claims that several water companies are involved in such schemes, this is the only example to be cited.  There are indeed other examples and it is a shame that the report does not address more fully the challenges in developing new thinking in this area compared with its more defined focus in earlier sections.

Perhaps on the other hand however, this should be welcomed by those of us who have spent a lifetime involved in day to day management of rural estates and farms as an opportunity still to bring practical common sense and hard-earned local knowledge to further deliberations on these matters.

This provides the perfect opportunity to finish on an event being organised by the Ecosystem Knowledge Network with the Tatton Estate and the Country Land and Business Association on Natural Capital for Rural Estate Professionals at the end of October.  The latest report from the Natural Capital Committee is an important step forward in defining our rural future – do come and join us to see how this might begin to look on the ground.

 

Natural Capital for rural estate professionals: Cheshire, 31 October 2017

This half day workshop is aimed at rural estate owners, managers and their professional advisers. Our purpose is to look at practical ways in which we can work with current policy and technical thinking about natural capital and ecosystem services. We will hear about some tools that are available to help and will look at a practical case study based on a real private commercial rural estate.

You should end the day with an enhanced understanding of the latest developments in this area and some insights that you can start to apply to your own estates and land. You will also have the opportunity to provide feedback on what you have heard and what you think is needed.

This opportunity is the first of its kind to address these issues from the perspective of a private sector landowner and manager. It is important as we see high level advice to government and future public policy beginning to develop around the natural capital concept.

Programme to include:
• Overview of current issues in rural estate management
• An introduction to tools for scoping, mapping and valuing the benefits of natural capital
• Presentations from tool developers Viridian Logic • The Land App • NaturEtrade
• Small group discussion around a practical example (based on the Tatton Estate with the support of Tatton Estate Management – the largest privately-held estate in East Cheshire)

Organised in collaboration with the CLA, Oxford University, Natural Environment Research Council, Charles Cowap and the Ecosystems Knowledge Network.

Members of the RICS, CLA, CAAV, academics and employees of not for profit organisations can benefit from a discounted admission price.

http://ecosystemsknowledge.net/events/tatton

Registration from 10.45 for an 11.15 start; event closes at 16.30 hrs. RICS Structured CPD hours = up to 5 hrs 15 mins plus further reading etc as appropriate.

Event flyer here