Brexit: greener pastures

Environmental pressures and Brexit add up to inevitable change for the agricultural sector in the UK. But what form is this likely to take? Catherine Early investigates.

Farming in the UK is in a state of flux, with the 25-year environment plan and Brexit combining to mean that significant changes are on the horizon. 

Many campaign groups believe that the role of agriculture in meeting more stringent carbon targets – and possibly even reaching a net zero-emissions economy – has not yet been fully acknowledged by politicians. Farming has a significant impact on the climate, generating 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. This figure has barely changed since 2008, according to the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report to Parliament in June.

The committee flagged up farming as one of its priority areas for the government to act on in the next 12 months, criticising it for failing to implement low-cost opportunities for abatement. It noted that the voluntary approach used so far has failed.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has stressed, however, that once the UK leaves the EU, it will leave the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy, with payments to farmers instead focused on “public money for public good”. 

This approach would see direct payments to large landowners reduced, freeing up money to reward farmers for helping to mitigate climate change – by restoring peat bog, for example, or carrying out other measures that sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Payments could also compensate landowners for creating new wildlife habitats, increasing biodiversity, reducing flood risk and improving air quality by lowering agricultural emissions, a consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggests.

The consultation on these plans closed in May. An update from the department in August stated that it had received more than 43,000 responses, and more than 127,000 signatures on three different petitions on the issue. Defra aims to publish a bill on the proposals in the autumn.

Increased pressure

Whatever measures are eventually implemented, they will have to enable significant change. Only 58% of farmers are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Defra’s latest statistics on farm practices. For those not trying to mitigate climate change, almost half (44%) said that they did not think it was necessary to do so, as the farm did not produce high emissions. However, 37% cited a lack of information as the reason they were not acting.

The think tank Green Alliance’s event ‘How will UK farming have to change in a net zero-emissions economy?’ was held in London on 9 July, as part 
of the Horizon Debate series. It was attended by experts on farming, the countryside and conservation, and participants believed that farmers would respond positively if they were given the right incentives. 

“It’s wrong to say that farmers are resistant to change. Farmers will follow the signals given to them, as in any other sector,” said Christopher Price, director of policy and advice at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). “In the past few years, we haven’t had a government that’s particularly interested in the climate change consequences of farming, so there hasn’t been any pressure on farmers to 
do anything about it.

“I think that is changing now, and that the more progressive farmers are starting to recognise this,” he added. He believes there is significant scope for emissions reduction in agriculture, and considers a 20% cut by 2030 achievable. 

Liz Bowles, head of farming at organic certification body the Soil Association, agreed. “Farmers have been focusing on improving efficiency rather than changing practice. Farmers can change, but they haven’t been given the right signals.” She pointed to the large number of farmers who have installed renewable energy generation, for which they were given a financial incentive in the form of ‘feed-in tariffs’; these pay them per unit of energy produced.

“It’s a big challenge for farmers to know what they should be doing and to be incentivised to do the right thing, which will mean changing practices significantly,” said Bowles. 

She highlighted a study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), which found that increasing the proportion of EU land under organic management to 50%, from the current level of 6%, by 2030 would have the potential to reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. Over time, she said, all farmers will follow organic practices, even if they are not fully certified. Price agreed that organic farming can contribute to the solution – but as part of a suite of options. 

“In the past few years, we haven’t had a government that’s particularly interested in the climate change consequences of farming, so there hasn’t been any pressure on farmers to do anything about it”

Changing policy 

Panelists also pointed to the role of consumption in enabling farmers to reduce emissions. Tara Garnett, coordinator and lead researcher at the Food Climate Research Network, said: “We need to talk to hospitals, schools and big purchasers of food, and look at how we can nourish people effectively at minimum environmental cost. Policy should be oriented towards that goal.” 

The focus should be on both consumers and farmers, said Bowles. “We need to help consumers understand the carbon embedded in food, as well as help farmers understand what they can do practically. We need to bring everyone with us – it’s no use if half the farmers in the country become fed up and give up.” 

Any measures taken to address the environmental impact of farming need to be compulsory, said Ruth Davis, deputy director of global programmes at the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds. “We should aim to have compulsory measures that tackle soil and nutrient management on farms. We all need to acknowledge that the voluntary approach that’s been taken so far in driving on-farm advances doesn’t work,” she said.

It’s clear that the agricultural sector in the UK can expect big changes in the coming years.

 

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist
 

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