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CPRE’s Vision for Farming

Submitted by on 14 Sep 2011 – 13:29

Shaun SpiersShaun Spiers, Chief Executive Campaign to Protect Rural England

A couple of years ago CPRE published a Vision for the Countryside in 2026, our centenary year.  This foresees a more beautiful and vibrant countryside, where farmers prosper and are highly valued both for producing food and for managing the countryside.  More people visit the countryside; more people eat local foods; and farmland is protected from development by a strong planning system.  “The wild flowers, birds, insects and mammals that had so dwindled over the previous 70 years have returned in a rush of sights and sounds and smells.”

We wanted our Vision to be inspiring – there seemed little point in producing an uninspiring vision – but we recognised that the heady passages on farming were more hopeful and perhaps less realistic than the rest of the vision.  Indeed, before we finalised the Vision, CPRE’s expert Policy Committee held a seminar on the future of farming to help inform our deliberations.  I remember coming away from the discussion with a sense that agriculture was a hugely complex policy area and that the only thing one could say with any certainty about the future was that it was likely to be pretty awful.

So having accentuated the positive in our overall vision for the countryside, we have worked to develop a more detailed vision for farming, a statement of the sort of farming system we want to see in twenty years’ time.

Of course, agriculture is shaped not only by public policy, consumer choice and the decisions of farmers.  There are also powerful external influences.  A changing climate, volatile economic forces and a growing population will combine to put more pressure on finite natural resources, including the countryside – a ‘perfect storm’ in the words of Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, reaching for the perfect cliché.

A tempting response to these pressures is to try to screw every last bit of productivity from the land, to farm more intensively and use biotechnology to increase yields.  But we should remember the consequences the last time we gave an overriding priority to increasing production, in the postwar period and the early days of Britain’s participation in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The outcome was dramatic harm to our farmed countryside.  It also helped create a perception that farmers were growing rich on subsidies while they wrought destruction to create a glut of food no one needed. At the same time, with large food retailers becoming dominant, consumers become detached from how their was produced – we have all heard stories about children who believe that chickens are grown in plastic bags in their local supermarket.  A deep divide was created between farmers and the public.

From CPRE’s viewpoint, industrial agriculture has also had a disastrous effect on the landscape.  We tend to talk of England’s patchwork of small fields divided by hedgerows or dry stone walls.  Writing about the “sensational” view over the Vale of Evesham, CPRE’s President, Bill Bryson, captures the perfect British countryside perfectly – “gently undulating trapezoids of farmland rolling off to a haze of wooded hills.  Britain still has more landscape that looks like an illustration from a children’s book than any other country I know”.

But as Trevor Rowley reminds us in The English Landscape in the Twentieth Century, some countryside is less lovely, culturally and botanically sterilized.  He quotes Gerard Woodward on the A1, “a highway through sad prairies…  There was a sadness about that landscape, relentlessly simplified, big and empty where once it had been small and complicated”.

So how can we not only avoid making things worse, but also repair some of the damage done to the land by intensive farming?

There should be no need to draw up battle lines between environmentalists on one side and most farmers on the other.  Following the introduction of the first agri-environment schemes in the 1990s there was a period when the interests of farmers and environmentalists seemed to be aligning.  The ‘perfect storm’ rhetoric has endangered this, prompting calls from parts of the farming lobby to produce as much food as possible, regardless of the consequences, but this will not do.

The recent Natural Environment White Paper sets out plans for landscape scale conservation to tackle the loss of species and habitats.  This approach requires farmers to do their bit to create a countryside once more filled with wildlife.  It means balancing our need to increase food supplies with enhancing the environmental qualities of farmland.

In CPRE’s Vision for the Future of Farming we describe a future where the twin challenges of nature restoration and food provision have been reconciled.  But for our aspirations to become reality there will need to be some major changes to policy at all levels.  Among many other things we need a reformed CAP that rewards farmers for the full range of environmental public goods they provide; landscape-scale conservation measures backed with adequate public funding; and support for local food producers so they can play a much greater part in producing sustainable food supplies.

If we are to repair the damage of the past, prevent further damage to the character of the countryside, and produce more food there will need to be a coalition of all those with an interest in the future of the countryside.  We hope CPRE’s farming vision will be a useful contribution to the debate we need on producing more while harming less.