Opinion: Delivering public goods still stacks up

I sat next to an MP at dinner recently. Half way through a rather sticky pomegranate crumble, he said: “I don’t understand why you capitulated and took the ‘public goods’ bait.”

I think that the MP was trying to rile me. But there was a modicum of honest surprise. Why hadn’t farmers fought for direct payments during the consultation for the soon-to-be-adopted Agriculture Bill? 

See also: NFU outlines top 10 key amendments to Agriculture Bill

While my opinion carries no weight, I believe that in the hope of prolonged taxpayer support, the public goods route was the right option. There are, however, amendments that I would make.

If public goods delivery is to form the backbone of future policy and have any chance of acceptability, it should be competitive and rewards based.

Granted, the metrics are tricky to apply. In other words, how good is the public good? 

But since the inception of agri-environment schemes, the will of the farmer to understand the what, how and why of their stewardship options has been pitiful.

The criticism does not solely lay at the farmer’s door. Advisors have acted in silos. Agronomists should have broader knowledge and be competent to deliver on both commercial crops and public goods.

So why reward attainment? The evidence is compelling. Under current and previous stewardship, the farmer receives a set sum for the duration of an agreement. With no incentive to deliver beyond what is required, the bare minimum is what he aims for.

Rewarding attainment, where the farmer can earn more each year, based on results, will drive numerous improvements – in uptake, willingness to learn and commitment.

Moreover, for the ambitious to be rewarded on a compound basis, others will lose out. Fear of failure raises standards. 

Cluster groups, such as those set up by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, are an excellent example of farmers pooling land to deliver exponential biodiversity gains.

Learning from each other with the guidance of a central advisor secures buy-in and results increase. Cluster advisors could also be entrusted with monitoring and measuring results for payment.

Under the bill, as I understand it, there is currently no consideration for payments for education access. I find this extraordinary.

At a time when the demand is for farmers to use taxpayers’ money to deliver public goods, surely it is in everyone’s interest that the good being delivered is understood by those who pay for it.

We must seize the opportunity to offer more access to our farms for schools, not just so that we are valued, but also to precipitate the links with health and wellbeing.

Other means of broadening the understanding, engagement and reconnection should be explored. An easy win would be to improve the reach of Open Farm Sunday through remuneration of hosts and those assisting.

Furthermore, farmers must not see it as a failure if it is public goods rather than food production on which they depend in the future. This may not come easily to some.

The language and personality of this transition must be carefully thought through.

Finally, there must be more emphasis within the bill on the benefits to health of the food that we deliver.

If as farmers we are the route to a healthier environment, then food must be the route to a healthier nation.

Defra secretary Michael Gove has been vocal in his wish to tweak prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

He too should listen to those who wish to amend his Agriculture Bill.

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