Dark days ahead for British agriculture? Or green shoots of a brighter future?

Suffolk farmland at dusk. Photo: Jimmy - S via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Suffolk farmland at dusk. Photo: Jimmy - S via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
With Brexit the UK will have to chose between two visions of our farming future, writes Keith Tyrell. Will it be heavily subsidised corporate agribusiness that ravages both nature and small, high quality farmers. Or will we seize the chance to build a sustainable food and farming system that supports wildlife, landscape, family farms, organic production and diverse rural economies?
The UK must move away from high levels of agrochemical inputs and fossil fuels and switch to farming methods based on agroecology, making better use of ecological interactions. In this way, we can create a safer, fairer, more sustainable farming system.

In June, a narrow, but clear majority of the UK electorate voted to leave the EU. This decision has dramatic implications for all areas of UK policy with over 12,000 EU laws and regulatory instruments set to be replaced or re-negotiated.

The UK agricultural sector is heavily influenced by EU policy. Not only is it subject to EU laws - including the Habitats, Water Framework, and Sustainable Use [of pesticides] Directives - but it is also dependent on the convoluted and flawed subsidy regime that is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Unravelling this package is fraught with risks, but it also presents a unique opportunity to shape UK agriculture for a generation to come.

Formal negotiations on Brexit have yet to start, and the shape of the UK's future relationship with the EU - and with other global trading partners - is still unclear. This uncertainty has created a policy void and groups are jostling to occupy the space and presenting competing visions for the future of UK farming and the countryside.

One vision is for the UK to tear up environmental rules and switch to an even more intensive model of agriculture. The EU's pesticide regulation system in particular has come under attack with the National Farmers' Union (NFU) complaining about "excessive use of the precautionary principle" and stepping up its attempts to water down restrictions.

Andrea Leadsom's vision: 'tear up the rulebook on the big fields!'

Meanwhile, we have a new Environment Secretary: Andrea Leadsom, a former banker who was prominent in the Leave campaign. Her comments on agriculture prior to her appointment were limited to a misguided proposal for environmental trading certificates:

"It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies."

Under this approach, big, productive farms should be exempted from environmental management requirements, which would be left to smaller, marginal farms instead. The logical conclusion of this approach would be to turn huge areas over to intensive monocrops while destroying biodiversity on a massive scale. Measures to improve landscapes, plant hedgerows and support bird populations would be scrapped across vast swathes of the country.

In fact, our countryside needs more, not less, protection. The statistics are stark: Over the past 80 years, the UK has lost over 97% of its wildflower meadows and nearly 121,000km of hedgerows have disappeared (in spite of 30,000km new hedgerows being planted).

Over the last 40 years, our most vulnerable species have declined by 77%, and wild pollinators are in retreat: three of our 25 native bumblebee species are now extinct, and eight more are suffering major range contractions.

Pesticides: the agrochemical threat to our biodiversity

There is little doubt that intensive agriculture and associated habitat change is the driving factor behind these declines, but agrochemicals are also a big part of the problem. Since 1990, the total UK land area treated by pesticides has almost doubled from 45 million Ha to 80 million Ha.

The UK must move away from high levels of agrochemical inputs and fossil fuels and switch to farming methods based on agroecology, making better use of ecological interactions. In this way, we can create a safer, fairer, more sustainable farming system.

Pesticides have direct impacts on biodiversity - many are toxic to insects, birds, fish amphibians and mammals and exposure can cause lethal poisonings. Broad spectrum insecticides, for example, can destroy beneficial insects as well as the pests they are targeting. Even sub-lethal doses can harm nervous systems and affect behaviour which can make individuals and communities more vulnerable to other threats.

Pesticides can also affect food availability - insecticides reduce populations for insect-eating birds, while herbicides destroy native plants and habitats and reduce food sources for animals that depend on floral resources and seeds. In the last 25 years, herbicide use has increased by 75%.

It is no co-incidence that farmland bird populations have collapsed. Since the 1970s, the grey partridge, corn bunting, and yellowhammer have all declined by between 53% and 92%. These farmland specialists are known to be affected by pesticide use.

Meanwhile pesticide runoff continues to pollute our water courses. Every year, water companies spend millions of pounds removing pesticides from our drinking water. In 2014, around a quarter of the UK's drinking water protected areas were at risk of failing legal standards because of pesticides.

Pesticides are also a serious threat to human health. Many pesticides in use today have been linked serious illnesses including asthma, autism, birth defects, diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and cancer.

Scientific research from the US over last five to ten years has clearly linked high pesticide exposure in farming families and rural residents near treated fields, with increased incidence of certain types of cancer, other chronic health problems and of reproductive problems and a host of developmental disorders in children.

This kind of detailed, long term epidemiological research is lacking in the UK but there is no room for complacency that current pesticide controls work well to prevent harmful levels of exposure, especially as there is virtually no enforcement or monitoring of pesticide use practices.

Most farmers are struggling, as agribusiness scoops the subsidy jackpot

What is perhaps most galling is that the system which allows this destruction and harm does not even work economically for farmers: Around 80% of CAP subsidies go to just 20% of landowners - the biggest ones, including many corporate enterprises.

For the rest, farming is of marginal or uncertain profitability. Incomes are low and farm gate prices often fail to cover the cost of production. Hundreds of farmers leave the industry every year: around a third of dairy farms have closed in the last decade alone. Of those that that remain, many are forced to supplement their income with second jobs or diversified activities. UK Farming is in crisis, and has been for some time.

But it doesn't have to be like this. We at PAN UK have a different vision for the future of UK agriculture. We want to see an food and farming system which

  • allows farmers to make a good living,
  • supports them to grow more sustainably,
  • makes it easier for farmers to make space for the environment,
  • helps them to reduce their reliance on pesticides.
  • generates extra employment, with more rewarding jobs and better conditions for farm workers, and
  • improves social and economic welfare in rural areas.

To achieve this, the UK must move away from reliance on high levels of agrochemical inputs and fossil fuels and switch to farming methods based on agroecology, making better use of ecological interactions and natural resources. In this way, we can convert British agriculture to a safer, fairer and more sustainable system for the next generation of farmers.

We need a system that benefits both farmers and biodiversity

Once the UK leaves the EU, the CAP will no longer apply. Brexit has given us the opportunity to replace the CAP with a system that benefits both farmers and biodiversity and introduce a model that ties subsidies more effectively to social and environmental goods.

The CAP currently delivers more than £3 billion in support to UK farmers. It is an essential lifeline for many and makes up more than half of many farmers' incomes. But less than 20% of this funding supports environmental and social measures and the vast majority of the funds are simply doled out based on acreage - the more land you own, the more money you get.

PAN UK is calling for a refocusing of support to help farming communities and the environment (see our five point plan below). We want to see subsidies maintained, but targeted at those who need it most and rewarding farmers who work with the environment.

As the Government charts a course out of the EU, Ministers must consult widely to come up with the best option for the UK: its people, economy and environment. PAN UK stands ready to be part of that process to create a truly sustainable farming system.

PAN UK's five steps to a more sustainable farming system

1. Use subsidies to promote greener agricultural practices, support farmers and protect our countryside. The UK should move away from a system of flat rate acreage subsidy to one that supports practices that enhance biodiversity. Growing a wider variety of food, with more mixed agriculture, wider crop rotation and lower field size will create more resilient and sustainable farming systems better able to cope with and help tackle climate change. There need not be a conflict between productivity and sustainability - it is possible to have both.

2. Establish strong regulatory controls on pesticides including targets and incentives to cut pesticide use. It is possible to cut pesticide use while maintaining yields and profits, but farmers need help and incentives to do so. The UK should introduce a national target to cut pesticide use, ban the most Highly Hazardous Pesticides and promote less harmful and non-chemical methods of managing pests, diseases and weeds.

3. Support farmers wanting to adopt more environmentally friendly practices - including organic - with training and practical research. Invest in research to develop and improve sustainable farming approaches and provide training and advice to those who want help to adopt them.

4. Support diverse, family and small-scale farms. Target subsidies to support a thriving and diverse farming sector by giving small and medium scale farmers - not just big agribusiness - a greater share of the subsidies and help them to access markets. This will encourage young people to stay in the industry and reverse the exodus from the sector

5. Support the organic sector to grow. Organic farmers in the UK receive much less support than their continental peers, and as a result organic farming only accounts for about 2% of UK production, compared to as much as 10% in some European countries. The new system should provide more support to help farmers convert to organic and drive market demand for organic products.



Keith Tyrell is Director of Pesticides Action Network (PAN) UK.

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