Have we got the balance right between protecting the environment and producing food
Land Manager Mark Tinsley and the RSPB’s Mark Avery respond.
Tell us what YOU think – post your comments at the bottom of the page.
We do not have a coherent strategy for land use in the UK. Policy is ad hoc and designed to achieve short-term political gain. It is reactive rather than pre-emptive and the balance between environmental, social and commercial consideration is heavily weighted in favour of the environment.
It is understandable why the environment was given priority, but social, commercial and environmental positive outcomes are interdependent. If a policy neglects any of these three influential factors, it is unlikely that medium and long-term strategic objectives will be achieved for the others.
The UK countryside is widely admired because, for generations, commercial activity has funded rural strategic stewardship. Not all that funding emanated from rural commerce, but a significant proportion did. In the future UK consumers will decide what outputs from the land they wish to pay for; whether they are food, energy, resource protection, tourism, birds or whatever, should be a matter for ongoing parliamentary debate and review.
We need an intelligent land use debate for the UK, looking ahead at least twenty five years, and taking into account rising world populations, dietary change, water shortage, climate change and political instability. Government, the major UK retailers and NGOs are driving policy in a way that is damaging rural commercial activity in the UK. If not changed, this will adversely affect the UK rural environment and consumer well-being.
We need to decide rural policy based on a balanced perspective between environmental, social and commercial influences. Much of the past environmental damage at field level has either been reversed or is improving rapidly. However, we continue to reduce our commercial competitiveness by allowing the environment to dominate decision- making on issues such as Research and Development strategy.
Present Government policies will result in a continued decline in our food self sufficiency. It is right to debate whether that is strategically sensible. Rebuilding a home based food industry, if we allow it to wither, would be difficult and costly.
Agriculture policy is moving out of the dark days of scant environmental awareness, but we’re far from a positive environmental footprint.
In fact, I’m not convinced, taking agriculture in isolation, that this is an achievable aim. We need to produce food, and until there are radical improvements in technology, growing food will emit greenhouse gases, skew water and nutrient cycles and affect ecosystems. This is not to suggest that great improvements can’t be made – they can and must. The RSPB’s farm in Cambridgeshire has doubled its farmland bird populations, against a national background of decline, without damaging profits or yields.
I get more hopeful, however, when we stop talking about agriculture, and start talking about land management. Land management can, and should, have a net positive environmental gain. Productive agriculture is a vital part of that, but the key is to recognise other land management objectives, which governments have, up to now, failed to value sufficiently.
Take the uplands. In this 40% of the UK, agriculture is on its knees, causing enormous distress to those involved. Our rescue package has been to shore up the holes in Upland Farming plc’s accounts with very small dollops of cash from agriculture funds. Result: declining production, communities and environmental assets. But the uplands capture 70% of our drinking water, host charismatic wildlife and stunning landscapes, and harbour the most extensive carbon store, peat, in the country. A land management approach to the uplands, would secure a huge array of assets. Upland Land Management plc’s accounts would be very much in the black – environmentally and economically.
The folly of recent bioenergy policy shows us what happens when we try to force production to answer all the questions. We must include conserving and enhancing wildlife, mitigating and adapting to climate change, managing water resources and quality, and providing outdoor space for people’s exercise and spiritual enrichment as equal objectives, alongside production, in our land management policies. That is the only way to gain the environmental riches we hunger for, and be able to feed ourselves and our children, too.