Farmers must be placed at the heart of a new combined food, farming and environmental policy to help revive the rural economy in a post-Brexit era, say industry leaders.
The vote to leave the EU has offered Britain a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to build a more resilient farming sector – and restore the environment.
But if subsidies are lost, redirected or poorly targeted, there could be serious consequences for the wider countryside, warn farm leaders.
An inquiry into environmental policy post-Brexit was held at Portcullis House, Westminster, on Tuesday (11 October).
The Environment Audit Committee (EAC) meeting, chaired by Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, brought together representatives from the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA), Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA), National Trust, RSPB and others.
Industry leaders urged Defra to rethink its plans for two separate 25-year strategies on food and farming, and the environment.
They favoured a “joined-up” strategy that pays subsidies to farmers for delivering targeted services for the public good, such as enhancing wildlife, soil fertility and flood mitigation.
“It’s madness that we should be looking at these things in isolation,” said TFA chief executive George Dunn. “They feed off each other. Each will benefit from the other’s thought processes.”
CLA deputy president Tim Breitmeyer said his organisation viewed Brexit food, farming and environment policy as a “binary approach” to create a more resilient farming sector alongside greater benefits for the environment.
The recent State of Nature report had cited agri-environment schemes as being a huge benefit to the environment, he said.
“It is one of the rays of hope for the farming sector that these schemes are really recognised,” he said. “I think we must build on that.”
But Mr Breitmeyer, who manages a 650ha farm in Cambridgeshire, said the government must slash red tape associated with agri-environment schemes. “Frankly, it’s putting most farmers off trying to engage with it,” he added.
Patrick Begg, rural enterprises director at the National Trust, said higher-level agri-environment schemes, in particular, had produced the best results.
“We now have the opportunity to look at it again and rebalance the payments for public benefit, but also recognise that we will need farmers to do this,” he added.
“This has to be a partnership. The last thing anyone needs is a great deserting of the uplands or marginal farms – because they are the most vulnerable – through the immediate removal of public subsidies.
“We will need to make sure the [Brexit] landing is as soft as possible, but also starts to push people towards a rather broader set of outcomes for land management than simply food production.”