Wildlife groups rate DEFRA on farming pledges

Wildlife and countryside organisations have attacked the government’s record on its pledge to be the “greenest government ever”.

In particular, the government has come under fire for failing to deliver on its commitments to agriculture, such as improving farm animal welfare and reversing the decline in farmland birds.

The Nature Check 2013 report, published on Tuesday (19 November) by 41 environmental organisations, rated the government on its progress to date on delivering its green commitments.

The report included a bespoke section on agriculture, which scrutinised the government’s performance on farming and related issues. Highlights included:

Genetically modified (GM) crops
DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson has expressed strong support for reducing regulatory and financial “barriers” to commercial GM crops. But the report warned that the pursuit of GM solutions must not weaken policies designed to protect the environment, damage the livelihood of non-GM farmers or detract from existing sustainable alternatives.

Bee health and other pollinators
The government was criticised for its resistance to EU laws to restrict the use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides, linked to harming bee health and other pollinators. The report accused DEFRA of an “apparent disregard for sound science” and a tendency to “prioritise short-term economic considerations over long-term sustainability of farming”.

Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)
The report commended DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson for maintaining a robust “public money for public goods” position during negotiations to reform the CAP in Brussels. Yet it said the final CAP agreement will “continue to fail to protect and enhance wildlife and the natural environment”. However, DEFRA’s preference for transferring the maximum 15% of Pillar 1 direct payments to Pillar 2 rural development schemes was “very welcome”.

Red tape
The government set up the Macdonald Task Force to reduce regulatory burdens on farmers and food processors. Last year, environmental damage from agriculture in the UK was estimated to be as high as £4bn, the report said. It warns the ongoing focus on deregulation in farming is “deeply worrying”.

Voluntary agri-environment schemes
The report claimed there is “very little evidence” to suggest voluntary approaches to agri-environment schemes deliver genuine environmental improvements in the agricultural sector. It said voluntary initiatives specifically relating to animal welfare “can contribute to upholding acceptable standards”, but these initiatives are often “disparate, inconsistent and uncoordinated”. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) has raised awareness among farmers about the best ways to optimise environmental benefit from land management options, but it “did not meet its original objectives”.

Greenhouse gas emissions
The government’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, based on the industry-led initiative the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, continued to be a “cause for concern”, the report stated. It warned that insufficient attention is being given to protecting existing carbon stores, the importance of sensitive land management, or aiding adaptation to climate change as part of a sustainable mitigation strategy.

The Green Food Project
The project brought together interest groups from farming sector and the voluntary sector to tackle difficult questions central to the food production debate. The project made some “win-win” recommendations, including the key message that any growth in food production “must take place within environmental limits”.

Sustainable farming
The UK throws away an estimated 8.3mt of food each year. However, the report claimed there is “little evidence” that the government is taking steps to promote sustainability in the agricultural system so that we can produce sufficient food and enhance the environment to meet the needs of future generations.

Government’s response

Responding to the report, a DEFRA spokesman said: “While this report acknowledges some of our achievements to date, many of the criticisms are unjustified and based on opinion, not facts. Our ambitions are long term and we are making good progress.”

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