Farming Tomorrow?

On the 1st August this week a think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report entitled Farming Tomorrow: British agriculture after Brexit.  You can download the report from here.

Policy Exchange describe themselves as follows:-

‘Policy Exchange is the UK’s leading think tank. We are an educational charity whose mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas that will deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy. Registered charity no: 1096300.

Policy Exchange is committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development. We work in partnership with academics and other experts and commission major studies involving thorough empirical research of alternative policy outcomes. We believe that the policy experience of other countries offers important lessons for government in the UK. We also believe that government has much to learn from business and the voluntary sector.’

According to Wikipedia Policy Exchange is a British centre-right think tank, created in 2002 and based in London. It has been variously described as, “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right”, in the Daily Telegraph, and as, “a neo liberal lobby group funded by dark money”, in The Guardian.

Interestingly Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for the Environment was instrumental in setting up Policy Exchange in 2002 and was its first chairman. Even more interestingly Michael Gove’s recent speech on environmental policy ‘The Unfrozen Moment – delivering a green Brexit’ (download here) practically mirrors the ethos of the Environment section of the Policy Exchange document.

Gove has been more circumspect about exactly what Brexit might mean for agriculture other than saying that in the future ‘support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear’.

Perhaps the Policy Exchange document gives us an insight into what Farming and Food Green paper might contain?

The document contains 6  chapters and an Executive summary. In the Introduction the authors argue against a British Food Policy based on Food Security and self-sufficiency, arguing that World free trade will provide us with our needs and suggesting that a policy of self-sufficiency would lead to even greater environmental damage.

Such views are not uncontested. Jay Rayner in his 2013 book ‘A greedy man in a hungry world’ argues that with the rise of the middles classes in China, India and Indonesia many of the markets that would have traditionally supplied British supermarkets are turning their attention to these new emerging markets which will make it potentially more difficult for Britain to source its food at low prices.

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London tweeted the following yesterday which highlights his concerns of the proposed strategy.

The Policy Exchange position certainly seems to support the views of the previous Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom when she spoke to the NFU in February this year (see here).

There is a full chapter in the report on agriculture in Britain from the ‘Corns Laws to the CAP’, of course repealing the Corns Laws in 1846 opened up tariff free trade and British agriculture acted as a free market with little government intervention, subsidy or protection. It would appear that we are heading back at least metaphorically to 1846 but on this occasion without an Empire or a navy that ruled the waves.

The final four chapters cover consumers, producers, the rural economy and the environment.

Consumers
Policy Exchange state that the most important stakeholder in food and farming is the consumer and that they want inexpensive, high quality, safe food which is available in the right quantity at the most convenient time and place.

This chapter also addresses the issue of food standards and discusses the controversies around chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef and Genetically Modified and genetically edited food. The authors seem to be suggesting that there is no evidence that these practices threaten human health but have been banned by the EU on the grounds of the ‘Precautionary Principle’. The Consumers chapters ends with the following two recommendations, you can make of the second one what you want!

  • After leaving the EU Customs Union, the UK should unilaterally phase out tariffs that increase consumer food prices and complicate new trade deals.
  • The Food Standards Agency should be given new powers and resources to collate, commission, and review scientific evidence on food safety and animal welfare.

Producers
This is a brutal section as it discusses the decline of British farming over the years, it takes no prisoners and offers no solace.

The chapter suggests that UK farming income in 2016 was £3.6b which included £3.1b in subsidies so actually farming only made a profit of £500m. Indeed they also suggest that between 1997 and 2007 farming profit was below the subsidy level so in effect agriculture produced a negative effect on the economy overall. The recommendations from this chapter puts much of British agriculture to the sword.

  • The UK should work to phase out direct subsidies for agricultural production and income support. This will free up Government revenue to fund other taxpayer priorities, such as the NHS.
  • Any remaining subsides should be redirected towards protection for natural and public goods, and increasing R&D to boost innovation and the sector’s long-term productivity.
  • The Government should work to identify environmentally suitable freed-up land that can be used for housing or commercial development, sharing the planning uplift with the original farmer.
  • Subsidies should be phased out gradually over a five-year period from 2020, with farmers given the option of receiving a final payment as a single one-off payment instead.
  • Seeking self-sufficiency in food should not be a goal of agricultural policy.

Rural Economy
This section challenges the accepted wisdom that agriculture is a core part of the rural economy. The authors state that in terms Gross Value Added agriculture, forestry and fishing represent just 2% of the rural economy.

The chapter begins to discuss the environment and highlights the importance of natural capital,

Conventional economic statistics only capture a limited proportion of the value created by rural areas, much of which takes the form of positive externalities. The ONS’s preliminary work on natural capital identifies as many as 29 separate mechanisms by which the natural environment can create value, including: agricultural production, timber, wind power, wildlife, air pollution removal, waste water cleaning, flood protection, scientific, and scientific and educational interactions. The recreational value of day trips alone to the natural environment was estimated to be £6.5 billion — not far below the entire GVA of agriculture.

In other words, nobody really expects areas like Dartmoor, the Lake District, or the New Forest to be highly productive from a narrow economic point of view. Greater productivity of agriculture allows it to operate in a more intensive fashion, freeing up significant land areas for managed re-wilding, increasing biodiversity, and preserving many of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes. As science writer Matt Ridley has argued:

Post-Brexit environment policy should be one of gardening: managing for a diversity of outcomes in different places. Productive farms here, deep forests there, wild moorlands elsewhere. Freed from the one-size-fits-all shackles of the EU, we should localise our policies, and host as many habitats and species as the climate will support.

The text suggests that many current agricultural workers could in effect become ‘gardeners’ tending natural capital via payments for ecosystem services.

But in a world such as this what about farming?

Here the authors argue that British agricultural should move away from its productionist past and through innovation become a world leader in AgriTech (Tim Lang and Michael Heasman in their 2015 book Food Wars call this the Life Science Integrated paradigm). This is the world of biotechnology, GM and the use of enzymes, robot driven tractors, precision drilling, fertilising and pesticide application , the use of ‘big’ data and drones. Some will be able to go down this route but not everyone …….

Here are the recommendations from the Rural economy chapter.

  • Environment: preserve and enhance the UK’s Natural Capital
  • Connectivity: enable rural workers and businesses to integrate withthe wider economy
  • Innovation: use the opportunities from Brexit to become a world leader in AgriTech

Environment
This section sets out that agriculture dominates land use and the current model of exploitation is simply unsustainable.

It goes on to talk about water pollution, air pollution and climate change, soil degradation and the impacts on biodiversity. It states that reform should focus on the ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ model and that this should be integrated with biodiversity offsetting. It argues that forestry and agriculture need to be much more integrated. The recommendations include:-

  • Rather than giving production subsidies to farmers under the CAP, all remaining public support should go towards public goods, such as preserving and enhancing the natural environment and the environmental and aesthetic benefits that derive from it.
  • This should be achieved using a ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ approach, linked to the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan and the work of the Natural Capital Committee. Payments should be available both to farms and other landowners, creating a competitive market for the provision of ecosystem services.
  • As part of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, Government should consult on the most appropriate mechanisms for commissioning ecosystem services (including consideration of the optimal scale), and explore how they could work alongside tools such as regulation and biodiversity offsetting.
  • Develop an integrated land management policy framework, which facilitates the deeper integration of forestry and agriculture. Explore the potential of re-forestation as a cost-effective approach to mitigating carbon emissions.
  • Perverse EU rules such as the crop diversification rule should be reformed or abandoned.
  • Transpose the key environmental directives that govern the environment — notably the Water Framework Directive, and the Habitats Directives — so that there is no post-Brexit period in which no laws apply.

The report finishes as follows.

As described above, Payments for Ecosystem Services can be used to achieve a range of environmental benefits, such as carbon sequestration, improving water quality, reducing flood risk, or improving the landscape. For other goals, where valuation is harder, regulation may be more efficient. In this context, who will decide what outcomes are desired, and in which locations? Will different locations pursue different objectives? What is the approach scale to make these decisions?

As a practical example, consider the Lake District — recently identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Lake District is regarded as having a landscape of great beauty, in particular its cultural landscape. The current landscape is the product of centuries of human management, in particular of upland sheep farming, which has resulted in deforestation and relatively low levels of biodiversity. In the post-Brexit farming policy framework described in this report, should this landscape be preserved as it is to maximise its cultural and heritage benefit? Or conversely should it be ‘re-wilded’, as suggested by some commentators, and returned to nature to maximise its biodiversity and wider environmental benefit?

These are the sorts of difficult decisions that will need to be made in the creation of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

So does this document contain the blue print for the Defra 25 Year Plans for Farming and the Environment? Of course we will have to wait and see. This neoliberal future certainly appears to offer huge opportunities for the environment but at what price to farming? The report openly talks about re-structuring the industry – this means forcing uneconomic businesses off  the land freeing it up for other uses such as housing and re-wilding.

What does it mean for Dartmoor? It would appear that the money will be there for hill-farmers but will this be for livestock production or their potential future new role as ‘gardeners’?

 Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian (see here) has said ‘no wonder farmers fear the Brexit wolf in sheep’s clothing. Most farmers voted leave. Now they are beginning to dread the withdrawal of EU subsidy and see their traditional protectors in the Tory party as enemies’.

The vision set out in this report shares little common ground with the NFU’s  ‘recipe’ for success post-Brexit which consisted of the following three ‘ingredients’

  • Access to the Single Market
  • Access to labour
  • A new agricultural policy which facilitated productive, progressive and profitable farming
The National Trust’s Director General has also joined in the debate saying that the ‘countryside faces damaging uncertainty unless the current level of subsidies are maintained for farmers. The Trust said affordable, high-quality food and wildlife-friendly farming can be secured for the current subsidy of £3bn a year (see here).
Finally, Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Kings College London has raised the prospect of the need for a second referendum (see here)  ‘Brexit after all raises fundamental, indeed existential, issues for the future of the country. That is why the final deal needs the consent not only of parliament, but of a sovereign people’.

So much up in the air, so many lives in limbo, one person’s threat is another’s opportunity.

Lots and lots of sheep

I’ve been to the Devon County Show today – my favourite place is always the sheep marquees. Lots and lots of local and not so local breeds on show. I never cease to be amazed at the passion and dedication that goes into looking after, breeding and showing these breeds. Here are a few pictures.

This is a Devon and Cornwall Longwool – a sheep originally bred for its wool not its meat – a sheep responsible for much of the prosperity now seen in cities like Exeter in the days when wool was king.

A Whiteface Dartmoor

A Greyface Dartmoor

An Exmoor Horn

A Devon Closewool

A Scotch Blackface – the commonest sheep on Dartmoor

A Valais Blacknose – there is a sheep in there somewhere.

A Border Leicester – amazing ears!

A Bluefaced Leicester

A Black Hebridean Sheep – an ancient breed but rather camera shy.

A Shetland Sheep

A Jacob Sheep

The next three types of sheep are recent breeds, bred specifically for their meat production and originating from Holland and Belgium.

This is a Texel

I don’t think he will take any nonsense

This is a Blue Texel

And this is a Beltex – his legs hardly look strong enough to support his body!

As is this one

Sadly though no multi-horned Manx Loaghtan….

This is a great book which tells the history of sheep in Britain and how that made the country rich

The Forgotten Farm Worker

In the Forum at the University of Exeter there is, at the moment,  a display of posters detailing PhDs that are currently being researched at the University. This one, ‘The Forgotten Farm Worker’ details the work of my colleague in the LEEP Institute, Caroline Nye.

Succinct and beautifully designed, complete with contractor, sun, clouds, rain, potatoes, carrots and a worm!

Worth reading the details of the research and the findings (double click on the image to enlarge) – very pertinent in today’s political climate

Some different sheep at the magical Challacombe

I was up at Challacombe Farm yesterday afternoon for a site visit to see and discuss the work of Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen who farm this Duchy Farm. It was a field visit which was part of a 2 day workshop entitled ‘Locally led agri-environment schemes – from a farmer’s perspective.’ I’ll report back on the workshop at a later date – in the meanwhile here are a few photos I took at Challacombe.


Naomi showing the extent of her farm and its large number of associated archaeological features.


Reporting back on the bracken management project


The slopes of the valley showing the Mediaeval lynchets – see here for more details on these.


From the barn up the valley to Hameldown Tor


In the barn Naomi shows of three different breeds of sheep which are being kept for their wool – the little dark one at the front is a Black Wensleydale – a very rare breed – see here. The white sheep at the back are Wensleydales – see here.


The sheep with the black and white faces are Zwartbles – famous for producing  an excellent fleece – really good to see wool coming back into profitability again (assuming you use the correct breeds) – see here for more details.


Here are a few Wensleydales out on an in-bye pasture.And this a hardy Welsh Black Mountain Sheep – small but very efficient at grazing around the Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

We also visited the amazing Rhos pastures at Challacombe –  wet valley mires – in the summer they are buzzing with life – I’ve written about these before – see here and here.

 

Finally …. can really recommend this book – tells the amazing story of sheep in Britain – from the times when wool created the country’s wealth right through to the dominance of sheep for lamb. The last chapter won’t be to everyone’s taste as Philip Walling is clearly very angry of the recent controversies regarding ‘overgrazing’ and the subsequent reduction in the national sheep flock. The book though does give a wonderful introduction to sheep breeds, where they came from and where they now survive.

A great afternoon at a magical place.

The problem with bracken

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)  is a contentious species which is almost universally hated on Dartmoor (except in the handful of places where it harbours the nationally threatened butterfly, the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe).

Bracken was once harvested as an important crop and used for animal bedding and as a roofing material. These practices dropped out of favour as other more modern materials were used instead and as a result bracken was no longer managed and began to spread.

This spread of bracken can be damaging to the historic environment as its dense network of rhizomes can seriously interfere with any sub-surface archaeology. It is also a species which is very unpopular with hill-farmers as it spread reduces the area of palatable grazing for livestock. Likewise conservationists do not like the species as its spread can reduce areas of inherently interesting vegetation communities e.g. heather stands (Marrs and Watts 2006).

bracken

Bracken tends to grow on deep well drained soils which do not become waterlogged. As a result it is absent on Dartmoor from the blanket bog and wet heathland communities as these are too wet. These deeper better drained soils on the moor support heathland (NVC H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath) and upland grassland communities (NVC U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile grassland and U5 Nardus stricta-Galium saxatile grassland). Bracken can encroach into wet heath communities (M15b Trichophorum cespitosus, Erica tetralix wet heath and M15d Trichophorum cespitosus, Erica tetralix wet heath, Vaccinium myrtillus sub-community if these have become drier as a result of hydrological changes, over grazing or burning (Marrs and Watts 2006).

These National Vegetation Classification (NVC) communities can change depending on the management regime they receive. Averis et al (2004) suggest the following changes to National Vegetation Classification communities which can all lead to an increase in bracken communities. The communities described below follow the NVC (Rodwell 1991 & 1992).

  • If H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath or H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus heath is over grazed or over burnt it can change into M25 Molinia caerulea-Potentilla erecta or U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile
  • If U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile grassland or U5 Nardus stricta-Galium saxatile grassland are under grazed then can turn to H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath or H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus heath
  • However all four of the communities mentioned above (H8, H12, U4 & U5) can be invaded by bracken and turn into U20 Pteridium aquilinum-Gallium saxatile

Bracken can be controlled either by cutting, rolling or the use of herbicides (asulam). However treatments must be repeated yearly if bracken is to be controlled, complete eradication is usually not possible. All these methods are time consuming and expensive. Rolling is often not possible due to the terrain or rocks and asulam can now only be used under an Emergency Authorisation licence as its use was outlawed in 2012 [1], there are also concerns that stocks of asulam are not in short supply as it is no longer being manufactured.

bracken-bruising-003Bracken rolling on Dartmoor by the National Trust

Pakeman et al (1995) showed that bracken had increased significantly over the past few centuries in Britain but they also showed that between 1970 to 1980 there had been a 3.4% decrease on Dartmoor (by 1.9km2 of bracken being gained but 3.8km2 being lost).

Pakeman et al. (2000) ‘concluded that the current abundance of Pteridium was less than, or at worst, equivalent to maximum historical records’. It is clear therefore that the abundance of bracken has fallen and risen depending on its harvesting or clearance by humans.

Werkman et al (1996) carried out experiments where bracken and heather and a mix of the two were grown in open topped tents to mimic climate warming and where different plots were treated with additional nitrogen inputs. They found bracken growing in the tents with additional nitrogen grew more vigorously and for a longer growing season than plants not grown in tents where no nitrogen was added. The bracken under the former conditions also encroached into the heather stands.

Werkman et al (2002) in another experiment found that bracken responded positively to increased temperatures but did not respond to increased nitrogen levels. They concluded that in a warmer climate bracken will continue to replace heather. They added a caveat that if climate change led to drier summers then water could be a limiting factor in the spread of bracken.

The implication of both papers by Werkman et al (1996, 2002) is that bracken will also spread into areas of upland grassland as well as areas dominated by heather.

Hill-farmers and other land managers on Dartmoor such as the National Trust spend considerable time and money attempting to control bracken on the moor, it would appear that in the future more effort will be required if bracken is not to spread further.

So rather like Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea, bracken does respond to anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere. In the case of bracken to increased temperatures caused by rising CO2 levels and in the case of Molinia to increased nitrogen levels caused by pollution from vehicles and agriculture (see here).

If a future climate change scenario on Dartmoor led to rising temperatures and reduced rainfall it is not impossible that the current areas of wet heath and those areas dominated by Molinia could become dry enough to allow the encroachment of bracken into these areas too.

 References
Marrs R.H. & Watts A.S. (2006) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn. Journal of Ecology 94, 1272–1321
Pakeman, R.J., Le Duc, M.G. & Marrs, R.H. (2000) Bracken distribution in Great Britain: strategies for its control and the sustainable management of land. Annals of Botany, 85B, 37–46.
Pakeman, R.J., Marrs, R.H., Howard, D.C., Barr, C.J. & Fuller, R.M. (1995) The bracken problem in Great Britain; its present extent and future changes. Applied Geography, 16, 65–86.
Rodwell J.S. (ed) (1991) British Plant Communities. Volume 2. Mires and heaths. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Rodwell J.S. (ed) (1992) British Plant Communities. Volume 3. Grasslands and montane communities. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Werkman B.R. & Callaghan T.V. (2002) Responses of bracken and heather to increased temperature and nitrogen addition, alone and in competition. Basic and Applied Ecology 3: 267-276.
Werkman B.R., Callaghan T.V. & Welker J.M. (1996) Responses of bracken to increased temperature and nitrogen availability. Global Change Biology 2: 59-66.

[1] http://www.brackencontrol.co.uk/asulam

National Sheep Association – Hard Brexit should not sacrifice sheep sector

There is a letter in today’s Farmers Weekly by Phil Stocker of the National Sheep Association about how the sheep sector could be seriously affected by a hard Brexit and the loss of subsidies.

nsa

There can’t be a hill-farmer in the country who is not deeply worried

Last year the NSA published a document about sheep in the uplands – I don’t agree with all of it but it is good and worth a read – download it here.