Farming subsidies need ‘complete reform’, says National Trust

The National Trust has called for a complete reform of British farming subsides post-Brexit to reverse the damage to the natural environment

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Speaking at BBC Countryfile Live today (Thursday, August 4), Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General of the Trust the National Trust called on politicians to put the recovery and future resilience of the natural environment at the heart of the funding system that will replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). 

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The conservation charity says reform is essential to reverse decades of damage to the countryside and the headlong decline of species.

Ghosh told the BBC Countryfile Live audience: “It is essential to act now as 60% of species have declined in the UK over the last 50 years. Habitats, breeding grounds and food sources have been lost, soils have become depleted and natural fertility impoverished.”

Under the National Trust’s proposals, the basic income support system of subsidies for would would be removed and instead farmers would be paid using public funds for environmental services. 

 Payments would also be scrapped for just owning land and farmers who help the environment and wildlife would be rewarded.

According to Ghosh, the vote to leave the European Union presents an urgent opportunity to shape a “new and better system” for stewardship of the countryside.

Ghosh added: “Whatever your view of Brexit, it gives us an opportunity to think again about how and why we use public money to create the countryside we want to hand on to future generations. Unless we make different choices, we will leave an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited.

“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but are valued and needed by the public.”

Last year the National Trust received around £11m a year from CAP subsidies. £3 million in direct subsidy and £8 million for environmental stewardship schemes. All money received is spent on conservation, says the conservation charity.

Ghosh added: “This is not just about the subsidy system but the way the market works. Farmers should get a proper return from retailers and food manufacturers.  If they are also producing clean water, unflooded streets or great holiday experiences, they should also get a proper return from the utilities or tourism industry.

“Farmers are key partners in finding solutions but this is too important to leave to governments and farmers to sort out between themselves.”

However, NFU President Meurig Raymond disagreed with the National Trust’s proposals, saying that government must not forget that “food production is vital”.

“The picture the National Trust is trying to paint – that of a damaged countryside – is one that neither I nor most farmers, or visitors to the countryside, will recognise. 

“Farmers have planted or restored 30,000km of hedgerows for example and have increased the number of nectar and pollen rich areas by 134% in the past two years.”

He added: “Farmers take their responsibilities as custodians of the countryside seriously and most visitors to the countryside will be enjoying the natural environment and appreciating the views of rural Britain which have been created by farmers – including many of the landscapes showcased by the National Trust.

“In this debate we must not forget that food production is vital.  We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food.  To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself.”

Ghosh set out six principles on conservation and farming, which she said any new system must deliver post-Brexit:

1. Public money must only pay for public goods. Currently, most of a £600m fund paid from the EU (out of the £3.1bn CAP funding) benefits wildlife and the environment. The majority of the remainder is allocated based on the size of farm. There will need to be a transition to the new world but this basic income support payment should be removed.

2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it. Currently, only 1/3 of the basic payment is conditional on meeting ‘green’ farming standards. In the future, 100% of any public payment should be conditional on meeting higher standards of wildlife, soil and water stewardship.

3. Nature should be abundant everywhere.  The system needs to support nature in the lowlands as well as the uplands – people in towns and cities also need access to wildlife, recreation and the services the environment provides.

4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long-term and on a large scale.  Nature doesn’t respect farm boundaries and needs joined up habitats on a landscape scale with subsidies implemented on a farm-by-farm basis. In the future, we should start at the landscape level, with farmers and landowners working collaboratively to set plans based on clear outcomes.

5. Farmers that deliver the most public benefit, should get the most. Currently, the more land you own, the more money you get. In the future, those farmers and land managers who get the most public money should be those who deliver the best outcomes

6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature. Currently, some science and technology harms nature – it increases crop yields with big machines and harmful fertilizers. In the future, public money should help create ways of farming that benefit nature and help develop new markets to reward farmer for storing carbon, preventing floods and promoting biodiversity.

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Image: Getty/Daniel Bosma