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.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A blueprint for public trust and accountability

Our countryside costs 13 pence per citizen per day. That's astonishing. It's hard to think of anything I value that costs me less.  

Not only do farmers produce food, they manage nearly 3/4 of these islands for the paltry cost to the taxpayer of less than £1 per citizen per week (£48 per year).

CPRE recently noted, in New Model Farming, that 'farming is not an ordinary industry.' It produces food direct for market, it provides the raw materials for the nation's £100bn food and drink sector, and it maintains the patchwork and character of our landscape, 'Farming is vital to communities, to public health and well-being.' 'Vital too is the green space it provides for recreation, recuperation, and inspiration.'

And yet, many farmers feel that they're heading for the edge of a cliff. Despite a majority of farmers voting to leave the European Union, producers fear the end of the financial support they rely on to supplement the distorted market that the CAP has created. A significant structural deficit now exists between the real cost of food and the price paid by consumers.

Farming needs a new deal. But, so too does the national community it serves.

While support for British farming is reasonably high, most people see farm payments as a subsidy for the next flash Land Rover. Most people don't know that for many farms the basic farm payment is the difference between existence and bankruptcy. It's no coincidence that on average one farmer commits suicide every week.

So, let's put this financial support into context. Forty eight quid is the same as it costs to join the RSPB (£48/year), and rather less than membership of the National Trust (£64.80).  

In terms of government spending agriculture is right at the bottom of the league table. In fact, just the cost of administrating central government is £185 per citizen per year. Based on the same analysis (with UK population calculated at 65m), we spend £2,138 per citizen per year on health (£139bn/year), £1,292 each on education (£84bn), £569 on defence (£37bn), £461 on public safety and police (£30bn), £169 on culture (11bn) - and then, right at the bottom, we spend £48 on agriculture (£3.1bn).

And yet, farmers deliver some of the most extraordinary countryside anywhere in the world - our grass lands, hill sides, tree belts, river banks, and hedgerows. The vast sweeping expanses of the Cambridgeshire fens, the drama of the Lake District, the rocky expanses of Snowdonia, the marshy splendour of the Scottish glens, and the rugged coastlines all around our unique islands.

Sadly however, our countryside is in dramatic decline. The 2016 State of Nature report recorded that over the last 50 years, 56% of species have declined, while 15% are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether. In 2014, scientists warned that there were only 100 harvests left in our farm soils. In addition, we must transform our food systems to cut carbon, methane, and nitrogen pollution, improve food quality and reduce obesity, protect communities from extreme weather by re-shaping our agricultural landscape, and improve welfare and reduce anti-microbial resistance by getting farm animals out of intensive systems.

So there is another serious structural deficit. This time between the natural assets we are plundering, and the assets that we need to survive.

We are paying rock bottom rates for the management of our countryside, and when you scratch the surface, it shows - farms are close to the edge of economic viability - and the quality of our natural assets is in free fall.  While there are remarkable pockets of ethical and environmental excellence, much of mainstream farming policy and practice is driving itself and nature towards an unprecedented precipice.  

Farmers fear that public payments will be culled, but instead we must reform them, and commit to paying them for the next generation. For decades public policy has pushed farming to drive nature to perilous tipping points, and so government must now take brave and bold decisions, and motivate farmers to restore the countryside so that it will continue to feed everyone forever.

We need a new deal for agriculture. One that maintains the critical safety net for farm businesses for the next generation, but one which has public interest and accountability at its heart. One which supports farmers, but which avoids market distortion, and which empowers consumers to reward high quality, higher welfare, sustainable food.

Fortunately, we have a historic opportunity to arrest the decline in our soils, air quality, biodiversity, welfare standards, and water quality. To put our farmers on a sound financial footing for the future. To ensure our natural capital is restored and maintained for the public good. To pay off the rising debt to nature, reducing risk thresholds, and ensuring rich and robust food systems for the future.

A new deal for agriculture
Last week Farmwel published its blueprint for agricultural land use and food production, in which we describe a process of de-centralisation that would lead to greater public trust, and accountability on the ground.

When we leave the European Union public funds should be re-directed to pay for public goods and environmental services to help preserve and restore Britain’s natural capital.

To achieve this, the current system of farm payments should be axed and replaced by a new farm contract, directed and supported by regional stakeholders and local citizens.

We are calling for:
- A national policy framework based on environmental, ethical, and economic sustainability
- A regional mechanism to agree local priorities with countryside stakeholders
- Individual farm contracts assessed by private schemes, which are published online so that ordinary people can contribute to monitoring.

This blueprint provides the bare bones of the new deal that citizens and farmers so desperately need.  It will help restore and maintain our natural capital.  And it will help guarantee public support for the next generation of farmers.