Farmers and land managers have a huge role to play in combating climate change and enhancing the environment, and must be recognised as such, according to speakers at the Bath & West Show.
With Brexit and resulting changes to agricultural and environmental legislation looming, it’s vital that the Government – and the public – recognise the beneficial role which farmers can play, said Lord Bathurst, president of this year’s Show. Speaking at the CLA breakfast on Wednesday (29 May), he said that farmers provided food, timber, renewable energy, clean water, environmental measures, tourism, leisure, and mitigation of inclement weather conditions.
“To be successful, environmental payments must deliver real income and profit if they are to be sustainable,” he explained. “And we need to get public support – it’s so important that we get our message out to the public and the Bath & West show provides the ideal platform for knowledge exchange.”
David Cross, director of farm agency at Savills, said that natural capital will likely become a more visibly traded asset to meet new environmental targets. “It may well be traded like milk quota in future, and the value of such commodities (like floodplains and marshland) will increase.”
However, in order to thrive in the new era, farmers need to adapt to become active land managers, warned Mark Tufnell, vice president of the CLA. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will have to plant and manage more trees, to sequester carbon, for example. “Carbon is also locked up in our soils, so grass and the animals that eat it are absolutely vital.”
Payments for public goods also need to be tailored to local areas and local needs, according to James Heappey, MP for Wells and Somerset. But there is more to the rural economy than land management – local infrastructure also needs to evolve to match the rate of development, he warned.
“Too many villages have no houses under £350,000 – and rural schools can’t survive if families can’t buy,” he said. But with ever more housing developments – aimed at lowering house prices – roads, high speed broadband, 4G and other services all need to be improved, too. “Our local communities won’t be sustainable if we don’t square that circle.”
However, according to Minette Batters, president of the NFU, any discussion around payments to protect the environment is premature. “All of this has to be seen in the context of what our future trading relationship is going to be,” she said. “Farms are businesses, and they can’t deliver environmental goods if they are not economically viable. They receive a miniscule amount of the value chain, and the Government has a duty of care to make sure these businesses are trading fairly.
“If farmers are undermined by cheap raw ingredients coming into our market place, which are produced to a lower standard, it will be economically disastrous for the industry,” she added. “We’re putting the cart before the horse – we need to focus on the industry structure to ensure that farms are profitable, sustainable businesses, and that revolves around food production and market viability.”