Monday, 3 September 2018

Time for a Great British food brand built on quality and sustainability

It is time for government to invest in a Great British food brand built on quality and sustainability. Underpinned by robust metrics, this brand could be used to promote British environmental and welfare quality at home and around the world.  

Origin Green is the national sustainability programme for the Irish food and drink industry, launched by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, in 2012.  It is still the only sustainability programme in the world which operates on a national scale, uniting government, private sector and food and drink producers.  It is popular with farmers, and is used by government to promote Irish food around the world.

In an Origin Green film a farmer says that in the old days, ‘they didn't call it sustainability, it was an instinct; an understanding that being in harmony with nature was a good thing.'

While there are many reasonable criticisms of Origin Green (for example that the entry level metrics are not tough enough and that the focus on climate change mitigation distorts its overall approach to sustainability), it remains a powerful idea.  Ireland has taken the decision to act nationally, to build a strong, resonant brand, and to celebrate Irish farming at a global scale.  Claims made by Bord Bia and by ministers when promoting Irish food are now unified and based on clear empirical evidence.

Britain needs a similar national food brand - one that supports legacy farming, ensuring that our land value is greater with each passing generation.

We can learn and build from the experience of Origin Green, to develop an excellent, quality-focussed, and robust sustainable food brand.  Our brand should set high standards for entry, above strong base-line legislation, and should aim to embrace at least half of British food producers within five years of its introduction.

The brand should guarantee and help deliver excellence built on:
Climate change mitigation
Biodiversity improvements
Excellent farm animal welfare

A national approach to metrics will be critical, but where Bord Bia inspects farms every 18 months, a UK brand should incorporate closed loop metrics that provide continuous information nationally and at farm-level, guaranteed by private assurance and risk-based inspections.

In this way, a unique and compelling brand could be launched within three years of the start of the transition period.  National metrics collection will allow government to build an accurate picture of British agricultural sustainability, and to set a reasonable standard for brand entry.

Brand membership should be available to farmers who genuinely meet high sustainability standards – and importantly, membership should feel good.  Farmers should feel proud of their membership, and feel the benefit of government backing as their commitment to environmental and farm animal welfare quality is promoted at home and around the world.

Government should set high brand standards, above strong baseline law, and be prepared to review and raise these standards as farmers rise to meet the challenge.  In this way the brand would continue to drive improvement and innovation throughout its existence.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Farming must move past the distraction over methane

New research shows that the global warming impact of methane, as a flow gas with a short half life, can be wholly mitigated providing emissions remain constant. 

This makes Farmwel's proposal for a Farmland Forest more timely than ever, because it offers animal agriculture the opportunity to deliver a highly visible, meaningful public good and to step past industry critics unhelpfully focussed on methane emissions from cattle and sheep.

The Oxford Martin research, which is explained clearly by Dr Michelle Cain in an article for Carbon Brief, shows that the impacts of methane should be measured differently from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Methane accounts for around 36% of UK greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, but its global warming potential is much less than CO2 (9% of total UK farming emissions), and N20 (55%). 

Dr Cain writes that, 'If the herd [of cows] remains the same size with the same methane emissions every year, it will maintain the same amount of additional methane in the atmosphere year on year. In terms of its contribution to warming, this is equivalent to the closed power station.'  Neither one is continuing to push up greenhouse gas emissions.

This research has been published at just the right time.  British farming leaders have seemed to be on the back foot ever since the referendum decision to leave the European Union. Reasonable concern about the impact of changes in financial support have often left them clasping to the past rather than embracing the enormous opportunities presented by the future.  

We are now overdue a positive vision for the future of British agriculture, which is farmer-led, and which establishes the business case for continued funding focussed on a transition to public goods and environmental services.  

Profitable, successful, working farms are the best and cheapest way to manage over 70% of the United Kingdom's land proficiently and sustainably.  This will require changes in land management and improvements in farm animal welfare, but these changes can have a profoundly positive impact on UK farming futures. 

Farmwel has proposed the creation of a permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, which should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  

This woodland would also sequester the equivalent of UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever. 

Of course, this 5% would be in aggregate. Some farms would find it difficult to identify 5% of land that is suitable for permanent tree planting, while others may be able to identify substantially more.  Importantly, this woodland should not just be block planted, but integrated dynamically across the whole farm.  The public should pay farmers in perpetuity for the permanent maintenance of this land as woodland, integrated with farm animals and crops.  The environmental services provided by this one simple policy objective would be many and substantial.

The Oxford Martin research comes at a critical time for animal agriculture. The environmental impacts of food animals have come under sustained public scrutiny in recent months, and it is true that much must be done to reduce the ecological footprint of beef, sheep, pork and poultry production.  Animal farming on low or no pasture systems can have a substantial detrimental impact on biodiversity, soil health, water and air quality, and stock greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and N20).  

This need not be the case. This research, combined with delivery of the Farmland Forest, offers British farmers, the government, and the general public the opportunity to permanently mitigate methane emissions resulting from UK food production and to begin restoring biodiversity on every farm in Britain.


Farmwel's Farmland Forest proposal is explained in more detail below.

Creation of a new, permanent Farmland Forest 

In summary – 
A new permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  This woodland would also sequester the equivalent of UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever. [1]

Tree planting provides the opportunity to deliver an enormous range of absolutely critical sustainable farming outcomes.  Trees, planted in the right place, will:

  • Substantially enhance biodiversity
  • Improve soil quality and help arrest the loss of top soil
  • Improve water management, helping to reduce bogging and flood risk Improve the control of dangerous parasites such as liver fluke by reducing lying water and boosting biodiversity levels (increasing predation of the water snails that host and disperse the parasite in its early stages)
  • Create shelter from extreme weather, leading to improve animal health and resilience
  • Improve the health and welfare of farm animals
  • Strengthen hedgerows, as part of ongoing hedgerow management and improvement
  • Create and contribute to wildlife corridors
  • Enhance beauty, complement heritage, and enrich the countryside
  • Screen development, for example clean energy installations
  • Sequester carbon
UK greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are approximately 9% of total UK emissions, and equate to 45MtCO2e per year. [2]  To offset agriculture’s total emissions would require approximately 180 million mature trees (assessed on an average sequestration value across a range of species) which would require (based on average spacing requirements) about 225,000 hectares of land. This equates to 1.3% of UK farmland.  Sequestration would occur by year 30, which would roughly take us to the year 2050.  We believe planting trees on 1.3% of farmland would be highly achievable.  

However, we also believe that a drive to deliver higher quality, healthier food and diets could make even more land available to be transitioned into permanent woodland.  Methane currently represents 36% of UK agriculture’s total emissions, and has an approximately 10 year active life.  By planting 648m trees on 4.68% of farmland we could, by year 30, sequester agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever – providing that methane emissions are not allowed to exceed their current annual total.  We believe there is a strong argument for planting a new Farmland Forest on 5% of farmland – to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, and improve animal health outcomes, and offset UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever.

England itself represents 77% of the UK and, if we assume equal responsibility from all parts of UK agriculture, we would need to plant 138.6m trees on 1.3% of English farmland, or 498.96m trees on 4.68% of English farmland.

We believe that both these planting targets are achievable, given the right incentives, over a five-year timescale – meaning that the Farmland Forest, if the policy began alongside a transition period starting from 2021, could be planted by 2026, delivering mature sequestration by 2056.

The sequestration of carbon emissions is just one important aspect of this policy recommendation.  Crucially, tree planting, if done well, will strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  These are all of critical importance to the sustainable future of UK agriculture.

For this policy to be a success farmers must be advised well, but then empowered to take control of their own woodland management schemes.  Farmers should not be overly restricted by existing planting formulas and regimes.  

To achieve the greatest benefit for multiple outcomes farmers should be able to develop tree management plans which include marginal land, boggy patches, field boundaries, hedgerows, and hard to reach corners – trees could be planted in lines, clumps, spinneys and woodland areas – they could integrate with farmland animals or be on set aside land.  Tree planting should also integrate with farm and landscape type.  The integration of trees with livestock farming is increasingly common in sustainable systems.  For example, many free range hen ranges already host trees, with ideal tree densities of 20% of the total land area.  

We believe this policy would leave an extremely positive, lasting and visible legacy.  It could be funded directly by government, and in partnership with food businesses and food producers.  We believe it could win the support of farmers, citizens and politicians across Britain.


  1. We could, by year 30, sequester agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever – providing that methane emissions are not allowed to exceed their current annual total.  

Monday, 21 May 2018

Proposal for farm animal welfare iceberg measures

Government has expressed a keen interest in the use of farm animal welfare ‘iceberg’ measures.  For example, discussion has focussed on the possibility of pig producers earning a premium for bringing their pigs to slaughter with intact unbitten tails.  To be eligible for the premium pig producers would also need to be members of RSPCA Assured, to ensure that a broader range of metrics are being collected and that good standards are being achieved.

This approach is attractive because it utilises a trusted welfare assurance partner to set general standards, and uses a single slaughter metric as the basis for additional payment.  This makes welfare payments extremely easy to administer. 

For other species single measures indicating very high levels of welfare are generally unavailable.  Instead it will necessary to focus on two or three metrics, which when achieved together indicate excellent health and welfare.  Some of these will be able to be collected at the abattoir, but other measures must be collected on the farm.

These are our recommendations, which could be implemented alongside improved legislative standards.

Finisher pigs
Slaughter metric
Headage basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or Soil Association Organic
Outcome measure: Intact unbitten tail at point of slaughter 
Rewarding all achievers
Will require excellent system management to achieve better health and welfare

On-farm metric
Whole flock basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or Soil Association Organic
Outcome measure: Low levels of pododermatitis
Target should be set, which will requires standardised national metric and collection method.
Will require excellent flock and system management to achieve better health and welfare

Laying hens
On-farm metric
Whole flock basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or Soil Association Organic
Outcome measures: Low mortality and good feather cover score 
Target should be set, which will requires standardised national metric and collection method.
Will require excellent flock and system management to achieve better health and welfare

Dairy cows
On-farm metric
Whole herd basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or Soil Association Organic
Outcome measures: Low levels of lameness and low levels of mastitis and low levels of anti-microbial use 
Target should be set, which will requires standardised national metric and collection method.
Will require excellent herd and system management to achieve better health and welfare

Slaughter metric
Headage basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or organic certified by Soil Association or Organic Farmers & Growers
Outcome measures: High levels of cleanliness (and no clipping) and low levels of lumps, lesions and swellings 
Target should be set, which will requires standardised national metric and collection method.
Will require excellent herd and system management to achieve better health and welfare

On-farm metric
Whole flock basis for payment
Producer must be RSPCA Assured or organic certified by Soil Association or Organic Farmers & Growers
Outcome measure: Low levels of lameness and low levels of helminths and low levels of anti-microbial use 
Target should be set, which will requires standardised national metric and collection method.
Will require excellent land and flock management to achieve better health and welfare


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Ambition for the future – Bold proposals for agricultural land use and food production in a Green Brexit

  • Our seven big and bold policy proposals appear further down this page
  • To read the full document - please click here

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union presents an opportunity to establish a new policy framework for agricultural land use and food production.  Government should aim to empower farmers to deliver future-proof agricultural systems that will be replicated around the world in decades to come: quality food, honestly priced, produced while enhancing our dividend to nature; ensuring a legacy worth inheriting for the next generations of Britain’s farmers.

Sustainability must provide the foundation stone of change – not only because we are the custodians of creation, but because good business demands that we take action to protect our primary assets.  Individually and together we have a duty to nurture our natural capital, so that our land performs well, and our relationship with nature becomes stronger.  Our capacity to grow good food forever should be enhanced with each generation that passes on every family farm.

To achieve this government must set a clear new direction for British agriculture, but critically, it must also allow farmers the freedom to succeed or fail as they take greater control of their own businesses.  While government must set and enforce high base-line standards it must also encourage farmers to organise at local and landscape level.  This flexibility will be essential if farmers are to think creatively to reform the infrastructure they rely on in the fields, at the farm gate, and throughout their supply chains.

Government should also reflect on its role as citizens’ champion.  Taxpayer funds directed at agriculture should deliver excellent value, with genuine accountability a pre-condition for all farm payments.  Farmers do not want handouts, and subsidy as a means of income support must end because this distorts the market place, promotes sloth, and reduces ambition.  However, ongoing financial support for farming is critical and will be needed for at least a generation.  Market distortions, established over decades, will take many years to repair, and substantial public funding will be required to fully arrest and reverse the degradation of our natural capital.

Just as we need biodiversity in the hedgerow, we must protect the diversity of Britain’s farm businesses, which were once the beating heart of rural England.  A race to deliver sustainable agriculture could restore employment, prosperity, and wellbeing to the patchwork farmlands of our nation.

The present state of nature requires a swift transition from the current destructive model of payments.  In the future, taxpayer funds should be used only to reward excellence and support the delivery of public goods, including environmental restoration and maintenance, farm animal welfare excellence, and the right to access all farm land.  Landscape-scale approaches should be prioritised, and capital grants should be focussed towards precision agriculture and clean technological investment.

Funding should not only be provided by the taxpayer but through a system of economic rents on the use of non-renewable natural capital assets such as nitrogen and phosphorous.  Funds from these rents should be ring-fenced and used to invest in Britain’s natural legacy.  Enforcement must be more proactive and effective, and should protect public interests, including the right to clean air and water and the need for natural biodiversity.

Government should also investigate medium term options to fully offset UK agriculture’s environmental footprint.  This could be achieved while enhancing our capacity to provide good, healthy and sustainable food for British citizens. 

With strong leadership and a clear sense of purpose we believe it is possible to grasp the opportunity provided by our departure from the European Union and reform agricultural land use and food production so that it becomes a diverse, thriving, sustainable industry, competing successfully to sell quality produce at home and abroad.

Big and bold – seven key policy recommendations

We believe the following seven bold policy recommendations would go a long way to delivering rapid, viable and sustainable agricultural land use and food production.  

Each item below is described in more detail in the full document.  

We urge the government to take action to deliver:

1. A national approach to sustainability metrics.
Government should identify key environmental and farm animal welfare metrics and ensure they are collected nationally.  A national sustainability metrics database will allow food chain stakeholders and government to analyse and drive progress.  This database might in fact be a series of databases, and may be delivered by private agencies. At a macro level data must be open and available for all to access, while individual farmers must be able to access their own data to improve standards at farm level.

2. Charging for the use of non-renewable natural capital assets.
Government should introduce charging for the use of non-renewable natural capital assets.  In the first instance charges should be introduced to strongly disincentivise the use of nitrogen and phosphorous because of the impact they have on our land and waterways.  Funds raised should be used to fund the restoration and maintenance of renewable assets.

3. Creation of a Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, to restore biodiversity, manage water, improve farm animal health and welfare, enhance beauty, and offset methane emissions.
A new permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  This woodland would also sequester the equivalent of UK agriculture’s total methane emissions. 

4. Accountability for citizens.  
a) Farm contracts should be published on-line
b) The public should have a right of access to all farmland
c) Citizen science and reporting capacity should be enhanced
d) Method of production labelling should be introduced for all meat and dairy products
e) Method of slaughter labelling should be introduced for all meat products

5. Net carbon negative agriculture by 2030.
All farms should be generating clean energy by 2030, for own use and for export to the grid.  Government should support a full range of clean energy options.  Each proposal should be considered on a case-by-case basis but a planning presumption in favour of renewables development should be established.  Community-based schemes should be welcomed.  

6. A rapid transition, with metrics collection required from day one as a condition of continued Basic Farm Payments (BFP).
We seek a rapid transition, over no more than five years, with some sustainability metrics collection required from day one as a condition of continued basic farm payments (BFP).

7. A national quality brand, similar to Origin Green, based on environmental and farm animal welfare excellence.
Government should consider investing in a national food brand similar to Ireland’s Origin Green.  This would help to focus an approach to metrics, and could be used to promote British environmental and welfare quality at home and around the world.  We recommend a brand built on all-round sustainability, which champions high environmental standards (climate and biodiversity) and excellent farm animal welfare.

To read the full document - please click here

Monday, 15 January 2018

Method of slaughter labels will help drive improvements in farm animal welfare

Farmwel's proposal for method of slaughter labelling has been welcomed by the UK Government. As The Telegraph recently reported, 'George Eustice, the farming minister, has now given a clear indication that the Government will consider introducing labelling after the UK leaves the European Union.'

Over the last decade there have been various attempts to introduce slaughter labelling both in the United Kingdom and at European level. These attempts have been unsuccessful, partly because they have focussed on the issue of pre-slaughter stunning.

Ongoing debate between critical stakeholders on the science of stunning, and the reasonable fear that a ‘stunned’/‘unstunned’ label may lead to the victimisation of people who support religious slaughter, has led to deadlock. There is also a danger that this form of labelling would create the inaccurate impression that slaughter with pre-stunning is always quick, clean, and humane.

Since 2016, Farmwel and FAI Farms have worked to change the conversation and focus the debate on consumer transparency. Over the last two years we’ve consulted a diverse range of stakeholders, including MPs, members of the House of Lords, senior representatives of the British Veterinary Association and Shechita UK, as well as food and farm animal welfare campaigners.

Following this consultation we have proposed a unique numbered system, which should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK. Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Critically, we believe that a method of slaughter label for all meat products will help drive improvements in welfare for all farm animals at the end of their lives – and importantly, we believe it will be possible to deliver a consensus around this solution.

A method of slaughter label will:
Improve public information, enabling citizens to drive standards
Improve the capacity for retailers and restaurants to respond to consumer preferences
Improve supply and demand relationships between wholesalers and abattoirs

Why is a label necessary?
Public concern about slaughter has increased, but much debate and media coverage has centred on the issue of pre-stunning and has not always been well informed. Method of slaughter labelling would improve consumer choice and help to ensure that retailers and restaurants are better able to respond to consumer preferences.

A simple number system identifying all approved slaughter methods would be objective and helpful in driving welfare outcomes for all farm animals. In our view, labelling should also be underpinned by robust welfare outcome measures focussed on handling, lairage, stunning, and slaughter to help improve and maintain standards. The combination of public information, science, and formalised assurance could improve the end of life outcomes for millions of UK farm animals each week.

Changes to UK labelling laws would have a global impact due to the long supply chains managed by UK retailers and restaurants. We also hope that improvements in UK law would later be replicated overseas.

Halal and Kosher
It’s important that Halal and Kosher customers can accurately identify meat products slaughtered to the appropriate religious standard. Equally it’s important for other citizens to be able to identify meat products which meet their own ethical preferences.

By labelling all meat products by method of slaughter, we will be able to ensure closer correspondence with consumer preferences.

Innovation and pre-slaughter stunning 
Methods of pre-slaughter stunning vary considerably between and within species. There is also a wide variance in each system’s inherent ability to deliver good welfare outcomes at slaughter. For example, if administered correctly the use of a captive bolt for cattle renders an effective stun and immediate loss of consciousness, prior to neck or throat cut. By comparison, the head stunning electric water bath system for poultry requires inversion and live shackling of birds, which they find stressful.  As a result of size variability some birds pass through the system un-stunned prior to the neck cut.

CO2 gas stunning of poultry can create visible aversion for several minutes and therefore has lower welfare outcomes than using inert gas stunning. However, CO2 is cheaper and easier for slaughterhouse operatives to identify and so remains the preferred gas stunning method.

Around 20m birds are killed each week in Great Britain, and according to figures from the FSA’s 2013 survey of UK slaughterhouses, around a quarter of birds were electrically stunned, and well over a half were gassed. We believe that most of these birds would have been gassed using CO2 or a high CO2 mix.

Greater transparency would lead to increased innovation to improve slaughter methods and could help create a market for the most humane slaughter systems.

Underpinned by welfare outcome measures
Farmwel believes that method of slaughter labelling should be underpinned by the use of robust outcome measures (OMs), which can be used to assess and improve welfare. Slaughter OMs should cover lairage, handling, and slaughter.

Currently UK slaughter standards are the responsibility of the operator, although the FSA requires the presence of an Official Vet (OV) to check the slaughter line. Monitoring the point of killing is just one of the OV’s many quality assurance duties, and there is no formal or standardised system for reporting outcomes.

We believe that OMs should be agreed nationally to help index slaughterhouses and compare standards. OVs should spend a fixed proportion of their time at the slaughter line. The informal ‘daybook’ system should be replaced, and an iPad or equivalent device should be used to record and manage information locally and to feed directly into a national data set for analysis and farmer feedback.

Welfare outcome measures will:
Provide the opportunity for consistent national monitoring by the FSA
Help ensure continuous maintenance and improvement of standards
Report consistent kill data back to farmers, informing production practices to reduce losses due to carcass condemnations
Help identify training needs and improve efficiency
Mean that the UK is able to compare itself at a global level
Allow the FSA to index slaughterhouses – providing greater choice for farmers, retailers, religious consumers, and restaurants concerned about welfare at slaughter.

Retailers and restaurants
Slaughter labelling will empower consumers to drive slaughter standards from the market place. It will also mean that retailers and restaurants are better equipped to respond to consumer preferences, which may vary around the UK.

This increased scrutiny will help to ensure that slaughterhouses adopt best practice and focus on good outcomes. Labelling will also mean that sustainability organisations are able to work with retailers and restaurants to overcome supply chain challenges.

In November 2017, Farmwel and FAI made a proposal to Defra that will deliver substantial farm animal welfare improvements, and importantly, will be broadly acceptable to stakeholders.

Part one: A unique numbered system should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK.  Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Numbered alphabetically:
1. Electrical – head only
2. Electrical – head to body
3. Electrical – water bath
4. Gas - CO2
5. Gas - CO2 and inert
6. Gas – Inert
7. Halal
8. Halal – pre-stunned
9. Jewish Shechita
10. Non-penetrative captive bolt
11. Penetrative captive bolt
12. Shot

Part two: Labels should be underpinned by robust welfare outcome-based assessments (metrics).

Method of production labelling
Farmwel believes that mandatory method of slaughter and method of production labels should be introduced together. This would achieve a high level of consumer transparency, providing the chance for consumers to actively support government ambitions for gold standard farm animal welfare.

Mandatory method of production labelling provides a straight-forward opportunity to deliver growth in all higher welfare meat and dairy sectors. By providing consumer choice the market will be able to influence and reward improvements in farm animal welfare. EU method of production labelling of shell eggs has led to more than 50% of UK eggs being produced by cage-free hens. UK method of production labelling of pork has led to nearly half of pigs living in higher welfare systems, with more than a third being assured by RSPCA Freedom Food.


* Farmwel advocates policies to enable a transition to sustainable and accountable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture.  Our goals for secure and sustainable food are supported by other important groups such as the Food Ethics Council.  Our expertise is underpinned by FAI Farms, a globally respected farm consultancy, which helps the food-sector overcome key challenges and implement better farming practices on land and at sea.  FAI works with major retailers (such as M&S) and restaurants (such as McDonalds) to analyse and improve the farm animal welfare and environmental impacts of their supply chains.  

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Gove presents a landmark opportunity to transform agriculture

The environmental and animal welfare movements have called for a green and ethical Brexit. In response, Theresa May has given us a gift-wrapped Michael Gove - a 'disruptor', a free thinker, an intelligent and thoughtful man, ready and able to take on vested interests.  

Despite the cellophane and ribbons there is a remarkable level of mistrust from NGOs towards a man who could not have made his support for a Green Brexit clearer if he had painted himself emerald and howled it from the highest dome of the Eden Project.

Let us be clear - the Conservatives own rural policy in Britain. Conservatives run rural councils. Farmers as an industry vote Conservative, and most of our land mass is owned by Conservative supporters.

It is the Conservatives who have the ready-made mandate to reform agricultural land use, and to deliver the brighter, greener future that Britain's countryside so desperately needs. If they are minded to, the Conservatives can reform from the centre, and expect to command the support of blue-rinsed local authorities on the ground.

If they are prepared to, then Conservatives can take on their voter-base and force through ethical and environmental reform in agriculture, secure in the knowledge that Conservative voters have nowhere else to go - UKIP is a busted flush, and farmers upset with Tory greenery are hardly going to shift to the Lib Dems or Labour (who support a strong green agenda already).

And Mr Gove has said loud and clear that he expects farmers to change.  That in future public payments will be tied to the restoration of our natural capital, and that environmental and welfare standards will be stricter not weaker after Brexit.

As Green Alliance chief executive, Shaun Spiers, said on Twitter today, 'It would be a foolish politician who made promises that he had no intention of keeping.'

So let's take a moment to record Mr Gove's vaunting ambition for the environment, so that in due course we can hold him to account.  

Last Friday, Mr Gove described an 'unfrozen moment' for Britain's environment. 'Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, and therefore how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas. And we can recast our ambition for our country's environment, and the planet. In short it means a Green Brexit.'  

Mr Gove said that Britain should become 'a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition that we inherited it.'

This is precisely what Farmwel has been calling for - a science-based, outcome-centric transformation of these islands, so that Britain becomes a world leader in welfare and environmental quality; an innovator in clean agricultural technologies, in standards, and in techniques to make food production environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable. 

So are environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners happy?  No it seems.  For every pace Mr Gove moves forward, there is a news cycle to take him three steps back. Since Friday there has been a rising tide of concern over the totemic issue of chlorinated chicken.  So, today Mr Gove has been explicit: 'We are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal.'

It's time to give the man a break. The government is already planning to move ahead on CCTV in abattoirs, it is considering a ban on live animal export, and it has recognised the desperate state of our nation's soil (which has lost 84% of its fertility since 1850).

Mr Gove has also made the case for public money for public goods.  He has said, 'I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many years to come.  But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.'

Mr Gove is promising radical reform of agricultural land use - the Green Brexit we've called for - and he's using language that NGOs could have written themselves.

So will he deliver?  Time will tell. We should be sceptical. With the best will in the world there is no doubt that Mr Gove will face the ire of powerful vested interests at every turn.  Politics is a process where ambition is routinely disappointed by compromise. But if there was ever a modern Conservative politician with the spleen to face the corporate, agro-chemical dragons - and to win - it's Michael Gove.

So now its time for green NGOs to move on.  The stage is set.  Promises have been made.  Our duty now is to work with government and help it deliver.  To demonstrate the public appetite for change.  To help identify the processes by which reform can be delivered, and the environmental and farm animal welfare outcomes and outcome measurements that will be needed to monitor reform on the ground.

If we get it right, then 10 years from now we will have a thriving food industry, with ethical, environmental, and economic sustainability embedded at its heart.

We have a responsibility to be part of that change.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Creating a big conversation in the countryside

Look, it's possible that I'm just a grumpy old man. (My wife and kids would no doubt provide damning character witnesses). But when I go out into the countryside I often come back feeling just a little bit cross.  

I grumble about flailed hedgerows, and I sound off about dumped machinery and broken stiles. I get frustrated when access is obstructed, and when I'm told to keep my dog on a lead instead of under control. I get upset about chemicals sprayed on the soil, wildflower verges mowed at their peak, and water courses lost to the plough.

I could go on - no really, don't get me started... but, when I talk to other people, I find that many of my concerns are shared.

In my last blog I noted the immense good that farmers do in shaping our landscape, even while acknowledging the harm that has been done to our natural capital by decades of bad land use policy and poorly directed farm payments. I also noted that most people, much as they support the idea of British agriculture, think that farm subsidies are spent on flashy trucks and quad bikes.

I wrote about the structural deficit between farm gate and retail prices; between natural assets plundered and those we need to survive. But there is another deficit, and this one is social.  

There is a gulf of understanding and expectation between the average person and the average farmer. Between those who eat healthy meals and the farmers who supply volume products for discount retailers. Between the joyful lives of the fluffy animals we see on CBeebies and Countryfile, and the millions forced into cages on intensive farms. Between those who use the countryside for pleasure, and those who work the land day-in-day-out.

And this deficit works both ways.

When we leave the European Union the government should guarantee ongoing payments for the next generation of farmers. But farmers need to actively engage the taxpaying public in order to make the case for that new deal. 

They need demonstrate the good that they do, explain some of the decisions that they make, and start to show an understanding of the needs and concerns of the great British public that supports them.

In other words, we need a big conversation in the countryside between farmers and other countryside users. Farmers need to make the case for ongoing taxpayer support, and start working to find compromises to ensure that Britain's countryside works for everyone.

Creating a big conversation
A decade or so back I was general secretary of the National Farmers' Union on the Isle of Man. At that time Manx farming had some major challenges.  Imports threatened home production, and the cost of export across the Irish Sea was high.

Unfortunately, public support was also at an all time low, and we needed urgently to turn the tide of public opinion. So, together with Isle of Man Government, we initiated a campaign to transform attitudes to Manx food and farming.

Throughout this campaign we actively managed conversations between farmers and other countryside users, and within eighteen months food and farming had once again become a jewel in the Isle of Man's crown.   

Under the surface, we found that there was still an enormous amount of goodwill towards Manx agriculture, but for too long it had been taken for granted. High immigration levels from England and Ireland also meant that fewer people had a direct family link to the island. With this in mind, we got out there, made the case for Manx food and farming, and found that people enthusiastically flocked back in support of home production. We championed Manx meat and dairy, bread and flour, veges, herbs, honey and mushrooms. If you wanted to, you could fill your basket with island-produced food.

In the first year of the campaign there were around 200 separate events either hosted or inspired by us in support of Manx farming. We hosted cream teas on farms for ramblers, and visited environmental groups to give talks. Farmers hosted heritage, nature, and bird watching tours on their farms. We put on a bonfire night extravaganza you could probably have seen from space. And we organised a Christmas carol service in a cow shed, with a silver band and mince pies, led by the Bishop, with readings by farmers and a government minister, which was attended by more than 300 people.

We also saturated the Isle of Man's media (of which there is a surprising amount) with positive food and farming stories. Before the campaign began nearly every press mention of Manx farming was negative, but right from the start of our project that changed completely. In addition, I wrote columns in newspapers and magazines, commentated regularly on the radio, and produced two series of the Manx Food Show for the island's public service radio station.

In this way we built understanding. We restored trust and mutual respect. We brought sometimes opposing interests together in a room (or a barn) and humanised concerns and abstract conflicts. And we created a larger, more positive market for Manx farmers, because more people knew at least a little of the challenges and hardships associated with food production in the beautiful but rugged, wind-blown landscape of the Isle of Man.

This campaign was run a decade ago on a big rock in the Irish Sea.  But we could do much worse than to replicate it here and now before the UK leaves the European Union. 

Although the UK is much bigger, it is still made up of distinct areas and regions, each with a distinct character, each with a lots of people passionate about where they live, and each with a local media keen to support local events.

In Britain, the nearest relation is Open Farm Sunday. This is a great start, but it doesn't do nearly enough. Most of the OFS events that I've been to have been full of people who already support British farming. We need events that actively manage conversations between farmers and conservationists; environmentalists; heritage enthusiasts; welfare groups; or footpath users.  Events that record opinions and face up to challenges, that engender understanding and foster compromise.

In my view, a direct and managed conversation is critical, particularly for farmers seeking to justify continued public payments; particularly for farmers who will need the support of British citizens and consumers when the UK leaves the single market. 

We need a big conversation in the countryside, and we could do much worse than follow the Isle of Man's example.