The GWCT supports the principle, set out in EU Common Agricultural Policy, to support farmers in order to secure a reliable supply of food for the European population. The Policy has served the continent well over decades and widespread hunger and malnutrition have been banished. With 210,000 more people swelling the global population each day, and expected to reach a total of 9 billion by 2050, the earth will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than it has in total, so far, to date.
Over the last 50 years the amount of land available per capita has shrunk from 0.8/ha to 0.2/ha whilst the UK population has increased by almost 100% in the last century alone. We have dropped from being over 80% self-sufficient in food to less than 70% in the UK, whilst wheat production, a crop which Europe outstrips the world in production terms has flat-lined for two decades. Clearly food production is going to become an increasingly important issue.
However, we know from previous experience that as production intensifies, biodiversity tends to suffer. The Commission has allowed national governments to move a proportion of the Basic Farm Payment into a separate fund to support rural development and the environment. Currently Wales has transferred the full 15% permitted by the Commission, England 12%, Scotland 9% and Northern Ireland 0%. Farmers can then apply for this money to support environmental activities. Under the existing schemes, over 70% English farmers have signed up, although Wales and Northern Ireland support has been less emphatic and in Scotland less than 20% have adopted simple stewardship.
Under the current CAP reforms, the Commission proposes to attach “greening” measures to the Basic Farm Payment. These measures, which are implemented at regional government level in the UK, bringing differences in detail and implementation, are:
- Crop diversity: the requirement for farms over 15ha to be growing at least three crops in any one year, although the main crop can make up as much as 70% of the area, and the minor crop as little as 5%.
- Maintenance of permanent pasture: This will be delivered at a regional level with the intent of maintaining soil quality and condition.
- Ecological Focus Areas (EFA): Farmers will have to manage 5% of the farm area in ways that are “beneficial for the climate and the environment”. Across the UK farmers will be able to register buffer strips and voluntary field margins, giving them credit for something they maintain. Farmers in England, though disappointingly not Scotland, will also be able to register their hedgerows. EFA measures also include the growing of leguminous crops such as peas and beans, the growing of cover crops to protect the soil from erosion and to build up soil organic matter.
In general we believe that farmers who are already adopting good practice will find these measures easy to achieve. Take the GWCT’s farm at Loddington, in Leicestershire. The farm is currently growing six crops, given that autumn and spring sown crops of the same species (in this case oats) can be counted separately. The farm normally puts some cover crops in the ground prior to spring sown crops and grows a substantial amount of spring beans.
Some groups have suggested that allowing legumes to be grown on the “Ecological Focus Area” is a poor use of taxpayers’ money, since it will deliver nothing for biodiversity. The GWCT does not agree with this. Legume crops substantially reduce the environmental footprint of the farm, since nearly 50% of the fossil fuel demand comes from the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Legumes do not need nitrogen fertilisers as they make their own, and some of this is passed on to the subsequent wheat crop, so inputs can be cut to that crop too; legume crops are insect pollinated so they provide a source of pollen and nectar to bees and other insects; they tend to have a more open structure which means it’s easier for birds to forage for insects. Our research suggests that tree sparrows returned more frequently to the nest colony when beans were the surrounding crop, compared to wheat, and that the proportion fledging increased as a result. Furthermore, the EU currently imports millions of tonnes of soya from the Americas to be used in animal feed rations, when a more local and sustainable supply could be produced on its own shores.
Overall, therefore, we believe the “greening” measures as proposed are a rational response to the conflicting demands of food production and environmental enhancement. We are pleased that in some areas those farmers who already farm well are not going to be penalised, but we are notably disappointed that in Scotland farmers will not be given the option to include hedges as part of their EFA.
Going forward, the EU must continue to focus on production, keeping productivity up and farmers on the land, but a greater proportion of the Basic Farm Payment needs to shift to pay farmers for the other services that they provide society with, including clean water, healthy soils, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and biodiversity. Past experience has shown that where funds are more specifically targeted and farmers respond voluntarily, rather than through compulsion, with the benefit of good advice, better outcomes can be achieved. Despite greening payments, considerable pressure will remain on pillar 2 funding to deliver measurable benefits for our game and wildlife.
Dr. Alastair Leake FRAgS CEnv
Director of Policy & Public Affairs