A Pebble in the Pond

People Need Nature – a small charity dedicated to promoting the sensory, emotional and spiritual value of nature, the importance of nature on public land and its place in public decision-making, has just published a report “A Pebble in the Pond – opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit“. You can download the report here.

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It is a timely report which discusses the evolution of farming policy and subsidy in the UK in the 20th century and impact that this has had on wildlife and one people. I was very struck by the graph showing the increase in the use of glyphosate from 1990 to 2014.

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It struck a chord as I had recently been reading about how glyphosate had been linked to the increase in the number of people with gluten intolerances – see here.

Miles King, the author of the report sets out how farming in England is currently structured ”

Of the 9 million hectares of farmland in England, 54% is arable land and 41% grassland. 

Most (84%) arable land grows cereals and oilseed rape. Just 30% of this area is used to produce wheat good enough to mill for our, and most of this is used to make bread. The other 70% of wheat and other cereals grown in England is used to feed animals, principally cattle, pigs and chickens. Around 5 million tonnes of cereals are used to feed animals in Great Britain.

Around 10% of cereal crops are used to produce biofuels. Only 5% of arable land is used to grow vegetables and nearly half of that land is used to grow potatoes. Nearly 4% of arable land (173,000 ha) is used to grow maize, of which 34,000 ha is used to fuel anaerobic digester biogas plants. The rest is converted into silage and used as feed for cattle, mostly in the dairy industry. Much of our milk and cheese is made from cows fed on maize in sheds.

The report contains the following bullet points in the Summary.

  • The damaging subsidies that existed within the EU can be altered in order to protect and restore our countryside rather than damage it. Nature, and the people of England will benefit from these changes.
  • Farmers are paid too little for the food they produce and in some cases are paid less than the cost of production. Supermarkets and others in the supply chain take most of the profit, leaving the farmers with the risks. This is an opportunity to tackle that injustice.
  • Subsidies currently paid to highly profitable farmers can be redirected to support small-scale sustainable farming, which benefits nature.
  • Landowners who provide benefits to society such as carbon storage or flood alleviation can be supported.
  • The UK’s unique Heritage Sites – from natural heritage, to historic buildings, to archaeological sites – can be protected for the future.
  • Far more action is needed to stop damage to nature from farming. Where an outright ban is not needed, a polluter pays principle can be widely adopted. Urgent action can be taken as a result of leaving the EU, to reduce the hazards of pesticides, to benefit nature, improve human health and produce healthier food.
  • Greater transparency in the way our countryside is managed and our lands are farmed can result from the UK leaving the EU, benefitting British farmers, society, our nature and the environment.
  • A new relationship between people and food can be developed. Educating children about where food comes from and how it is produced, is the first step to understanding the true cost and value of food.

As you can see – this is a forward looking report which covers the important policy areas that need to be addressed. I was interested in the sections on small-scale farming and the role that it might play in the future – an area which is largely ignored currently by Whitehall and Defra.

This report is worth reading as it provides a good background to the topic as well as suggesting some ways forward. This will be a hot topic for debate in 2017 and I suspect I will return to it again and again.

Interestingly tomorrow see the publication of a report ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum‘ by the influential House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. I will report on that in due course too.

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