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The Future of Sustainable Farming in Post-Brexit Britain

Jonny Rogers investigates how Brexit will leave behind a controversial EU policy and look to reward sustainable practices.

Photo by Warren Wong

While Brexit negotiations continue, the UK government has unveiled a plan for an ‘evolution’ in the country’s farming practices. Starting in the New Year, the ensuing decade will see the transition towards a new system which aims to reward farmers and land managers for adopting sustainable practices, improving animal welfare and reducing carbon emissions.

Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy

The EU’s controversial ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ (CAP) has resulted in farmers who own the largest areas of land receiving the greatest subsidies, funded by the taxpayer. The top beneficiaries of this system are often the wealthiest landowners, including The Queen and a billionaire Saudi racehorse breeder.

In addition, some EU farmers are even subsidised for intensive farming methods which contribute to environmental degradation, while landowners are able to raise land prices for younger farmers to reinforce barriers for entering the market. Nevertheless, following Britain’s departure from the European Union – with or without a deal – the nation will no longer be bound by the CAP.

"Brexit is a once in a generation opportunity to get rid of one of the EU’s most inefficient policies" – Ros Taylor, Research Manager at London School of Economics

Instead, as part of a new ‘Environmental Land Management’ scheme (ELM), farmers in the UK will start to receive grants for their work which contributes to creating a sustainable future, including capturing carbon in soils, cutting pesticides, restoring river beds and peatlands, planting new woods, and protecting farm buildings among other practices. In addition, those who are unwilling or unable to adjust to the system will have the option to receive a lump-sum payment should they instead choose to retire.

If the plan achieves its promises, farmers will be able to produce sustainable and healthy food without the aid of subsidies by 2028. The government hope that this system will inspire a global change in agricultural practices:

"Rather than the prescriptive, top-down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take. If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead." – George Eustice, Environment Secretary

A Change for the Better?

For the past few centuries, the development of industrial farming has been one of the most significant contributors to biodiversity loss around the world, alongside global warming and water pollution. A recent study has shown that the emissions from the global food system in its current state could prevent the Paris Agreements’ goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, farmers will be supported through the ELM scheme to support environmental rejuvenation by improving natural flood defences and restore valuable ecosystems throughout the country. As Roger Harrabin claims, England's countryside will "radically change" after the Brexit transition period, with the introduction of more trees, meadows and wetlands, in what he describes as "the most fundamental shift in farming policy for 50 years".

Nevertheless, although even critics of Brexit are largely supportive of this change, the plan has also been criticised for its lack of detail and clarity. Some claim that a number of the goals are difficult to measure or quantify, while others argue that there should be a more consistent penalisation for those who fail to reduce pollution.

Craig Bennet, the CEO of Wildlife Trusts, is concerned that the environmental schemes will be unable to deliver on their promises for improving nature in this country, because "we still lack the detail and clarity on how farm funding will benefit the public". In addition, while Martin Lines, the UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, welcomes the government’s ‘bold vision’, he believes that the plan needs more development:

"Without a detailed picture, it is difficult for farmers to transition to a nature-friendly farming approach that would ultimately make farming business more resilient and halt the decline of nature"

It is important to recognise, however, that the UK’s new agricultural policy is a work in progress, with details still undergoing planning and negotiation. But as we begin to transition out of the European Union, the decisions made over the next few weeks and months will be crucial in shaping the ecological life and landscape of this country.


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