Agriculture policy and stuff like that

The week before last the EU adopted a biodiversity strategy which says many good things.  but let’s just concentrate on agriculture for a moment.

Here are some highlights about agriculture (I’ve highlighted some bits for you):

  • 58. Recalls that over half of the EU’s territory is managed by farmers, that farmland delivers important ecosystem services and has considerable socio-economic value, and that funding for the CAP represents a significant part of the EU budget; stresses that the CAP is not confined to the aim of food provision and rural development, but is a crucial tool for biodiversity, conservation, mitigation of climate change, and maintenance of ecosystem services; notes that the CAP already includes measures aimed at environmental protection, such as decoupling, cross-compliance and agri-environment measures; considers it regrettable, however, that these measures have so far failed to halt the overall decline in biodiversity in the EU and that farmland biodiversity is in continued decline; calls, therefore, for a reorientation of the CAP towards the provision of compensation to farmers for the delivery of public goods, since the market is currently failing to integrate the economic value of the important public goods agriculture can deliver;59. Emphasises the connection between water management and biodiversity as an essential component for sustaining life and for sustainable development;60. Stresses the need to move from a means-based approach to a results-based approachin order to assess the effectiveness of the instruments applied;61. Calls for the greening of Pillar I of the CAPin order to ensure the conservation of biodiversity in the wider farmed landscape, improve connectivity and adapt to the effects of climate change; welcomes the Commission’s CAP reform proposal, which provides for a ‘greening’ of the CAP through the allocation of Pillar I payments to a package of basic good practices applied at farm level, including crop rotation and diversification, permanent pasture and a minimum ‘ecological focus area’; underlines that such greening measures need to be workable and must not create unnecessary bureaucracy; reiterates its call for area-based support for the Natura 2000 network under the direct payment scheme; believes that resource-efficient, environment- and climate-friendly agricultural practices will ensure both the sustainability of agricultural businesses and long-term food security, and recognises that the CAP should play a significant role in achieving this;62. Calls for ‘greening’ practices to be geared to agricultural diversity in the various Member States, taking into account, for example, the specific situation of Mediterranean countries, which is not addressed by the proposed thresholds in relation to the diversification of crops and land of ecological importance; notes that assembled crops, permanent crops (olive groves, vineyards, apple orchards) and rice crops are some examples of practices that should be compatible with ‘greening’, given the high ecological and conservation value of some of these agricultural systems;63. Maintains that assistance to public and private actors working to protect forest biodiversity in terms of species, habitats and ecosystem services must be increased under the new CAP, and eligibility extended to areas connecting Natura 2000 sites;64. Calls for all CAP payments, including those made from 2014, to be underpinned by robust cross-compliance rules which help to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services, covering the Birds and Habitats Directives (without watering down the current standards applicable from 2007 to 2013), pesticides and biocides legislation and the Water Framework Directive(8); calls for simple and transparent rules for those affected;

    65. Calls for a strengthening of Pillar II and for drastic improvements in all Member States to the environmental focus of that pillar and to the effectiveness of its agri-environmental measures, including through minimum mandatory spending on environmental measures – such as agri-environmental measures, Natura 2000 and forest environment measures – and support for High Nature Value and organic farming; underlines that the environmental measures under the two pillars should be mutually reinforcing;

    66. Acknowledges the critical report of the European Court of Auditors on agri-environment schemes; notes that very limited environmental objectives have been met with the EUR 22.2 billion available for 2007-2013; urges the Commission to ensure that future agri-environmental subsidies are approved only under strict environmental criteria;

    67. Draws attention to the fact that the increase in demand for agricultural fuels and the consequent intensification of pressure for their production in developing countries are threatening biodiversity, particularly in developing countries, owing to the degradation and conversion of habitats and ecosystems such as wetlands and forests, among others;

    68. Takes the view that the inspection of agricultural practices should be strengthened in order to prevent biodiversity loss; maintains, in particular, that discharges of slurry should be controlled and even prohibited in the most sensitive areas in order to preserve ecosystems;

    69. Calls for the EIP (European Innovation Partnership) in the agricultural field to be given an agro-ecological focus in order to enhance the ecological performance of production systems;

    70. Encourages the Commission and the Member States to explore the phenomenon of land abandonment in some parts of Europe as a potential opportunity to rewild large parts of the landscape as major wilderness areas, thus supporting the targeted maintenance of biodiversity and avoiding desertification whilst providing new socio-economic opportunities for rural development; stresses, however, the need to respect existing land ownership; also underlines that European farmers play an important role as ‘guardians’ of the landscape;

    71. Warns that various species and habitats which are highly valued from a conservation perspective, including those protected by EU legislation, are dependent on agri-environmental systems in which the presence of human beings is a key factor; highlights, in this connection, the importance of halting and reversing land abandonment; advocates increased support for small and medium-scale farming, family-based farming and extensive farming, which promote proper conservation of natural resources;

    72. Calls on the Commission, in the context of the new CAP reform, to step up its efforts in support of agricultural sectors which make a proven contribution to preserving biodiversity, and in particular the bee-keeping sector; points out that wild and domesticated insects such as bees account for 80 % of the pollination of flowering plants, and that the decline with which they are threatened represents an enormous challenge for our societies, whose agricultural production, and therefore food, depends in large part on the pollination of flowering plants; stresses, therefore, that particular attention should be paid to apiculture in the measures to be taken to protect biodiversity;

    73. Emphasises the importance of halting and reversing the reduction in species diversity and crop varieties, which leads to an erosion of the genetic basis on which human and animal nutrition depends; advocates the need to promote the use of traditional agricultural varieties specific to certain regions; calls for appropriate legislation and incentives for the maintenance and further development of diversity in farm genetic resources, e.g. locally adapted breeds and varieties;

    74. Stresses the need for more effective cooperation at European level in the field of scientific and applied research regarding the diversity of animal and plant genetic resources in order to ensure their conservation, improve their ability to adapt to climate change, and promote their effective take-up in genetic improvement programmes;

Well that’s pretty good, I would say. Although don’t hold your breath because it may never happen.  It won’t be popular with farming unions across the EU and they have an awful lot of clout (on how your money is given to them – bizarre isn’t it?).

Here at home the improvements to agri-environment schemes to which Agriculture Minister Jim Paice alluded last week are to be found on the Natural England website.  These include a reduction in points for those options that are less environmentally productive and an increase for those that are more productive.  This should tilt the playing field a little bit in the right direction at no real detriment to farmers.

These changes may help wildlife a bit, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because they are in the right direction that means that everything is fine; that’s like assuming that you are already home after you’ve taken two steps on the walk after missing the last bus.  This blog understands that there were even better options put to the Minister, particularly concerning grassland management options EK2 and EK3 (which are very popular ones at the moment), which he did not approve.

Still, any progress is to be welcomed although, as the European Biodiversity Policy says, and as the Minister said last week, it’s no use judging success by ‘means’ we need to see the right ‘ends’ being delivered.

Slow progress is being made on helping farmers to choose the best combinations of available ELS measures for wildlife.  Two approaches will be trialled: ‘Option Bundles’ and ‘Split Lists’.  Option bundles are like the Set Menus in a Chinese Restaurant (so you might choose the ‘farmland bird’ bundle) and split lists are, to continue the menu analogy, more like having to choose a starter (from one list), and a main course (from another list) and a dessert (from another list) to ensure a balanced meal.  Either approach could work but it seems like it is taking a whole election cycle for Defra to make some pretty small and much-needed changes to ensure better spending of taxpayers’ money.  Again it’s progress but we are still far from home.

However, in a document seen by this blog coming out of the EU which is a working paper on Greening Instruments, Member States seem to be thinking of very limp ways to green Pillar 1 payments.  From what I have seen it would be possible for any farmer who has more than 50% of his (or her) farm as grassland, or whose farm is certified under a scheme (such as, perhaps, even the Red Tractor Scheme which has little environmental content) to sail through the ‘green’ criterion for Pillar 1 payments.  Such measures would not green Pillar 1 to any great extent, and would not do wildlife (any harm but nor would they do it) any good.  Let’s hope that the final agreement is much much better than this.

Whenever you are told that progress is being made you should ask whether it is fast enough, big enough and radical enough.  And that’s why having sensible outcome targets is so important – it prevents Ministers, civil servants or the rest of us from getting away with saying that things are getting better is good enough if things are still bad.  Remember last year’s Breeding Bird Survey results (announced last year and covering up to 2010) were at their lowest recorded level since 1970.  Things can only get better – can’t they?


And a last reminder – today is your last chance to vote for your favourite and least favourite wildlife NGO – results tomorrow.


12 Replies to “Agriculture policy and stuff like that”

  1. In the early 1980s a field of real turnips held over 4000 finches mainly Brambling and Chaffinch along with Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and Duunock along with 20+ Grey Partridge. The reason being fat hen growing with the turnips. Now all we see is the quick growing ‘stubble turnips’ often with no weed seed in them! It does not take a EU regulation or High level stewardship to create that field of the 1980s all over the UK. All it takes is initiative.

  2. Here we go again – actually you never stopped Avery Blog/Farmers’ Weekly for example – despite having been involved with Grange Farm, you still do not understand, do you?
    Firstly, the ELS rules [CSS ESA before them] determined the outcomes. RSPB [whilst you were there and a Director shaped the rules for ELS, with DEFRA] and now you complain they do not work. With Natural England you were the lead advisors? Why not stand up now and say we need to do better and I will help. Maybe you do not want to succeed?
    Instead, like the tap that needs a new washer, you drip on about subsidy, greening CAP and which organisation is the best – it does not matter, we all want more wildlife, however it comes and whoever helps increase it. The clock is running.
    In fact you are right, some do more than others, that means others should listen the some so that we all succeed?

    1. Hugh (Oliver-Bellasis) – welcome and thank you! I think you’ll find that I do understand. Let me try to prove it.

      Yes the ELS rules determined the outcome but no the RSPB didn’t write them or get exactly what it wanted – I was there, I can remember. It was thanks to the RSPB, English Nature and the GCT getting together that CSS, ELS etc bore any resemblance to what was needed for farmland birds. In fact, if you think back carefully, it was thanks to the lobbying of the RSPB that the GCT finally saw conservation headlands and beetle banks incorporated into agri-environment schemes. GCT had done the research, as you know very well, years and years before but had been unable to influence government without help from the statutory sector and the RSPB (and maybe some others but that’s how I remember it).

      Lobbying from the farming community made sure that the ELS scheme, though theoretically fine for farmland birds, would not deliver very much. This wasn’t, let me hasten to add, because the NFU dislikes farmland birds but because they wanted as easy a ride as possbile for their members – I guess. Pressure from the farming community made sure that it was easy to do very little for your money (my money and that of other taxpayers).

      So that’s why we still need ELS to be tweaked – that’s all it needs. As I said on farming today – the ELS is very nearly a very good scheme – but not quite.

      My solution to farmland bird declines would be to make skylark patches compulsory in winter wheat for the next five years and then have a big party because skylark numbers would be at levels higher than they have been for 30 years and the value of agri-environment schemes would have been proved and we could all sit down together and work out the next steps. That is a slightly flippant solution but it is what would happen.

      Hugh, what’s your solution? Your comment was moaning about me moaning – which is, you have to admit, quite ironically funny really. And at least I moan at the people who have the responsibility and power to make things better – you are moaning at little old me, a blogger, nothing more. So come on – what’s your solution to farmland bird declines?

  3. It’s dead simple, and you know it very well, Hugh. You track back through all the schemes – ESA and the rest. They’ve got two things in common (1) they’ve failed and (2) they failed because the quality thresholds were negotiated too low. Only Agriculture could genuinely expect to go on getting paid time and time again for failure that it has carefully negotiated.

    The issue with ELS is all too clear: farmers won’t adopt in-field measures and many can accumulate enough points from the margins, especially on the western side of the country where take up is higher.

    What I find touching is the willingness of the people who are doing the business, like yourself, to stand up for all their peers who are in effect letting them down by not achieveing what as you rightly say we all want. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to divide the cash pot up on the number of Grey Partidges on each farm ?

  4. Working on the ground with many farmers both in the livestock and arable sector, the issue is not about the willingness of the farmers to deliver environmental schemes, but the knowledge to do so. The majority do wish to contribute to benefit wildlifes, but often lack the skills to deliver meaningful habitat. NE, RSPB, FWAG and others have been filling their order books with the production of successful ELS and HLS applications and hold successful workshops for farmers explaining the virtues of this and that option. It is then the next stage which is lacking. Very few farmers will grow an arable crop without an agronomist. Dairy farmers don’t produce milk without a nutritionist. So why do we expect the farming community to be able to deliver the exact prescriptions wildlife requires. The next stage is for farmers to receive that one to one expert advise on a regular basis to ensure that the exact required prescription for wildlife are delivered to the maximum benefit.

    1. Jon - welcome and thank you. I know you speak from experience and I think what you say is right.

  5. Hi Mark,a lot of good things in your blog but unfortunately some things put forward as simple or what the rules suggest would require are quite honestly never going to happen,crop rotation is more or less consigned to history books as the small margins made per acre mean that there is not the money to buy expensive machinery for each crop hence farmers need more money if crop rotation is required and that is never going to happen.
    John Miles seems to think he knows more about farming than the professional farmers,now we would not dream of thinking we knew more about his profession than him.
    Stubble turnips are entirely different crop to Turnips and Turnips are more or less consigned to the history books as well except those grown for human consumption.They are a crop that basically take up the land for a full year.
    Now for everyone’s information Stubble Turnips are always grown as a catch crop just being grown for a very short time between two main crops.
    It would be less confusing for the general public if people with little knowledge of Stubble Turnips did not confuse the issue.Always think John wants farmers to go backwards well he should give a lead and go back to a pony and trap instead of a car.
    We just have to combine modern farming with wildlife as Mark suggests with Skylark way are farmers or any other industry going backwards and indeed farming is just about the only thriving industry left in the UK.
    We can combine production and wildlife but it will need co-operation between farmers and advisors.

    1. Dennis – I totally agree about crop rotations. There is no going back – and I think these suggestions are a bit unrealistic.

  6. I find that a really interesting comment – and somewhat unexpected because I’d always imagined farming was awash with advice.

    What’s doubly interesting is that I see technical/professional capacity as probably the single biggest potential issue in bringing neglected woodlands back into management – without it, despite all the good intentions in the world, there’s the risk of doing more harm than good through inept interventions.

    The whole issue of professional expertise also seems to be one its hard for policy/grant makers to grasp – though to be fair Fc has quite rightly put far more money into grants for forest planning than in the past, very much a move in the right direction.

  7. Agree with most of what has been said here, all very sensible points. I’d just like to add a few issues to the pot. Natural England has done a good job but as someone with five seperate ELS agreements and two HLS’ I’d like to point out what a good job FWAG did. Unfortunately they have recently gone into administration and although moves are afoot to save some parts they leave a bit advice vacume. They did an outstanding job on HLS especially.

    Secondly what is often forgotton in this is that both ELS and HLS cover all the English Region and I’m not convienced that this really works. One example would be the hedge cutting restrictions which are quite feasible on mixed farms but very impractible on heavy land arable farms. This has put off a large number of “broad acre” holdings as they are very concerned about the RPA inspectorate who are taking a very hard line at the moment on even minor issues.

    Lastly you have to rember what a massive structural change has occured in farming due to a sustained period of reduced incomes from the early 90’s to the recent return of some profitabilty a few years ago. Actual management responsibilty, seperate from ownership, is now far more large scale with contracting arrangements leading to block sizes of thosands of acres. These low cost, simplified, businesses can’t provide the level of detail needed to make ELS or HLS work hence the desire to go for the easiest options. I think a lot of these issue were not given enought thought when the schemes were started. If the balance could be shifted away from EF1 easy options to the better Wild bird covers etc I can see that there would be a good opportunity for specilised contractors to plug this management gap.

    My appologies for the typeing, I’m on a blackberry and can’t see the text. Finally youl be pleased to know that the Skylarks are killing my sugar beet !

    Julian Swift

  8. Roderick, just a quick dig back about farmers being paid for failure. The UK population is 62,200,000 or so and using defra figure uk agriculture employs just under 500,000 people (0.8%) and provides 60% of our food.Some failure !

  9. Julian—-you must realise that some conservationists consider that farmers are a backward race and do not realise that farmers bought or rent land at considerable expense to farm food for human consumption which they have done very successfully and now in the latter part of the last century a group of people have sprung up who expect farmers to turn wildlife around in a very short time scale and go on about the very small part of their tax payment that goes to farmers ignoring all the other less productive things that claim far bigger share of there taxes.Of course from your figures farmers are easy whipping boys as there are only half a million of them and 62 million to pander to by having a go at farmers.
    What I want a few of these clever dicks to do is invest their own money into a farm and show us who can’t please them how to do it.
    Of course strangely there are no takers,the nearest being the RSPB who bought a farm presumably with my sub and a million others plus a few legacy’s.How I wish those same people had funded me,you can bet I would have managed a few Skylark patches to show my appreciation.If only all farmers had sugar daddy’s like that we could all afford to be way,way more wildlife friendly.

Comments are closed.