Lord Randall was MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip until 2015, and is a former adviser on the environment to Theresa May.
Earlier this month both leadership campaigns were in Devon and, as is traditional when the media circus ventures westwards, the spotlight briefly turned to farming policy.
Such an important policy area, covering the work that forms the backbone of our rural economy and is essential to our food security, should not be relegated to a fleeting regional concern – it was to the credit of both candidates that they made clear that farming was a central issue for them.
Both had sensible things to say, and it was particularly encouraging to see commitment to press on with the post Brexit farming transition.
This transition, moving from the old EU system of farming subsidies to a “public money for public goods” approach for farmers through the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), has come in for the occasional attack over recent months as being somehow anti-Conservative, and inimical for food production.
Neither charge stands up. The changes we are seeing embody good, pragmatic Conservative policy and are essential to seeing more British food on our shelves in the decades to come.
Unlike Lord Hannan (writing on the site a few weeks ago), I am in full agreement with the leadership candidates, the NFU and environmental groups that having more high quality British food sold and enjoyed in Britain is a thoroughly good thing.
The farming transition designed to ensure this has the potential to be a huge leap forward compared with the previous system. The old support for farmers under the EU Common Agricultural Policy was a byword for waste and inefficiency, with farmers effectively paid according to the amount of land they owned.
The system was akin to paying someone for being in the office, not for the work they do. It shored up the status quo in the place of innovation and rewarded large landowners at the expense of small family farms.
Quite rightly, both the May and Johnson Governments took the opportunity presented by Brexit to break free of this failed bureaucratic approach, in place of a new British system that gave the most support to farmers with the most beneficial outputs.
Good environmental outputs are the most beneficial for farming. Reaching net zero is not a nice-to-have for agriculture; it is a prerequisite for British farming to continue as we know it.
In the words of the Government’s Food Security Report 2021 ‘‘The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.’’
The report sets out how environmental pressures are already affecting farming outputs, with UK wheat yields seven per cent below the average in 2018, and 17 per cent below the average in 2020, in both cases due to ‘‘unusual weather patterns associated with climate change’’.
When you add in other escalating pressures such as soil degradation, estimated to result in losses to UK farmers of about £1.2 billion each year, and the ongoing loss of pollinator species essential to arable farming, it becomes clear that the greatest threat to getting more British food on shelves – and crucially keeping it there – is environmental.
Paying farmers for public goods, such as climate mitigation and improved soil health, is an investment in food security. This prudent, future-facing reform has been the cornerstone of the farming transition since Brexit and should continue to be so, all the way to up the scheduled transition completion date in 2027.
This approach also provides support for farmers in the here and now. Rising chemical fertiliser prices have driven rising agricultural costs, adding an estimated £160 million to farmer’s bills. With most chemical fertiliser dependent on complex global supply chains, these cost pressures are likely to worsen.
The farming transition offers a way out of this costs spiral, improving soil health so that there is less need for chemical fertiliser, and making smarter use of cover cropping and organic fertilisers to maximise productivity while minimising environmental impact.
Similarly, environmental farming measures, such as increased tree planting on farms, offer new, diversified income streams for farmers from carbon offset schemes, without compromising food production. Rather than the wolf-infested caricature of ‘rewilding’ sometimes presented by the press, case studies from working farmers involved in the Nature Friendly Farming Network present a much more accurate picture of environmental farming; innovative farming practices going with the grain of nature to drive up farm profits.
The Brexit-born, food-securing, farmer-supporting farming transition is unsurprisingly popular with Conservative voters. Polling from last month shows the highest level of support for ELMS from Conservative supporters, with only 11 per cent opposing the move away from the EU farming system. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss should take careful note, and plough ahead with the pioneering post Brexit course piloted by both May and Johnson.
If seen through to its end, the farming transition will assure British food security, cementing a key Brexit benefit for farmers – and the country that relies on them.