THE NFU is working hard to persuade the government that environmental concerns can be solved by sending positive signals to farmers, rather than resorting to further regulation and input taxes.
A new European water directive requires a reduction in agricultural diffuse pollution (pollution from land use that does not have an easily recognisable source). The NFU acknowledges that we have some practices that need to be addressed to meet new water quality targets.
Preventing pesticides, nitrates, phosphates and soil getting into water should be a key goal on all farms and unsafe practices need urgent attention. But other stakeholders must work with us. Setting water standards at a pristine level is neither practical nor cost effective. We are a densely populated country that must feed itself.
Farming is facing a massive upheaval with CAP reform, and decoupling changing stocking and cropping patterns. If this reduces the intensity of production, we will see water pollution fall.
Next year sees the start of cross-compliance. The good agricultural condition required to claim the single farm payment will focus farmers” minds on environmental management with renewed vigour. On my farm in Bedfordshire there is too much to lose and my brother and I are reading all the conditions expected to be applied with great concern. Soil management plans will again result in farmers demonstrating the good practice I believe is common on farms across the country.
There is also the launch of the Entry Level Scheme, expected in March 2005, which is worth 30/ha (£12/acre). Most farmers will target this money and apply a menu of options. On our farm we will be using a combination of margin and hedgerow management schemes. This puts another line of defence in place to prevent water pollution.
The Voluntary Initiative is showing promising signs in reducing pollution as better information reaches farmers. Getting clear advice from the Environment Agency on sprayer filling is vital. Once farmers are given practical solutions they respond quickly. The VI is an excellent example of how the industry can work with the water companies and others.
One significant success of the VI has been trials with catchment officers advising on best practice and how to avoid making spraying more risky. The NFU is keen to see catchment officers introduced nationally. Their work in conjunction with the changes outlined above to farming and agri-environment schemes could deliver real benefits. They must be given time before the blunt tool of input taxes is used.
Some lobby groups have urged the government to introduce input taxes immediately. Others, such as WaterUK and us, have stressed how ineffective they would be. They do not encourage best practice. Experience from other countries shows they do not deliver benefits and will hit our competitiveness.
Increasing the regulatory burden is not the way forward, particularly when so many environmental and agricultural policies are just taking shape. The best thing for the environment is a profitable agricultural sector. Without this we risk losing the people who know how to manage the environment and in the most cost effective way.
Farmers are making significant investment in new slurry systems, signing up to the VI and looking at environmental schemes. Government must allow time for the benefits of this to take effect. If input taxes were to be placed on all farmers, even on those ahead of the game in pollution management, the message to do nothing in future would be loud and clear.
Environmental taxes penalise the good practices along with the bad. The farmer who has invested to improve his environmental performance suffers the same penalty as the farmer who has done nothing.
Environmental groups should understand that getting farmers on side is more constructive than taxes. No industry has a greater vested interest in improving the environment than food producers. With the right training and correct information, farmers will deliver the improved water quality.