ALL CHANGE FOR FARMING AND THE REST OF US part 7
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
In my last post on change I express my concern that current policy is likely to see thousands of arable farmers forced from their living, sacrificed on the high alter of environmentalism.
I suggest that a different view of the countryside with farmers as part of the solution. Indeed, nearly all the countryside in the UK is shaped by thousands of years of farming. Man and his activity is as part of the environment as much as the ants and their great excavations are part of my lawn. Indeed, ants are possibly the only creature on the planet to move as much, or more, soil than man.
The sins of recent years have enabled cities to grow and industry and services to be fed by an increasing population. None of our current freedoms, lifestyles and social stability would be achieved without farmers.
First of all lets consider the current real and present threat to farmers. The Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union created a highly successful system in terms of food production that favoured the arable farmer, possibly at the expense of the livestock farmer, and most definitely, in terms of diversion of resources, at the expense of industry, and in terms of practises the expense of the environment. For the many decades we have been in the European Union wheat has been the favourite crop of the British farmer. This was made possible for much of that time by a system of quotas and protections that for many years saw prices of wheat sold within the European Union between 50% and 100% above the price of that sold outside the community. The preference for growing wheat was not always the case. Indeed, in 1924 in the division of Holland in South Lincolnshire wheat only accounted for 12.4% of the total crops grown by farmers. In 1939 in the country as a whole only 150 combines were used to cut wheat throughout the whole of the country, demonstrating how little wheat was grown at that time. The increase of wheat grown saw a reduction in the number of mixed and livestock farms, especially in the Eastern counties. Even before European Union membership farmers were paid a grant to plough up permanent grass land in 1951 in the blind pursuit of self-sufficiency, whilst the industry happily imported most of the inputs and equipment used to grow those crops! The protections, and subsidies have dropped away and a policy of cyclical farming is being pursued, albeit currently with astounding lack of detail. Former South Holland MP Sir Richard Body warned in the 1980’s and 90’s that the withdrawal of the Single Farm Payment together with a move to cyclical farming practises could see as many as 50,000 primarily arable farmers cease their activity as they become financially unviable. If we look at history the hardest hit will be the tenant farmer on lower grade land. More recently Jeremy Clarkson described the position as “ethnic cleansing” with the government trying to drive farmers off their land. Such talk sounds like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge clearing out Cambodian farmers in the name of Communism, or the slaughter of white farmers by Idi Amin’s and Robert Mugabe’s henchmen in the name of anti-colonial black nationalism. In these extreme examples the result was suffering, famine and reliance upon foreign aid. Thankfully, each of these countries have emerged from their hells and especially in the African nations we see agriculture developing at a rapid rate on their terms without European impositions. Of course, such clearances cannot happen in Britain? Well look at history and examine the Highland clearances of tenant farmers mostly in the period 1750 -1860. It is not without note that some historians in the past refered to it, like Clarkson, in an exaggerated manner as a form of genocide. Like today, it was a period where agriculture was changing rapidly and old methods like the “runrig” system did not incentivise the increased production methods and farming that England enjoyed. In the case of the clearances it saw an imperfect change from subsitence farming to pastoral farms, but as many as 150,000 people were displaced by the clearances. It was the loss of a way of life and the displacement of people and their livelihoods in the name of money and progress. Does this appear familiar?
Having been pushed down a path of high yields with high inputs, subsidies and quota/tariff protections arable farmers are being hit by many actions: the loss of subsidy whilst at the same time reducing carbon footprint, nitrate and phosphate use and reducing or doing away with various pesticides; told or forced to use less water or pay more for what they use; at the same time maintaining and improving the environment. But the time to make these changes is fairly short and the list of requirements is open-ended, endless, and subject to the wim of what the politician wants to be seen to be doing. At the same time he is expected to keep prices of his goods as low as possible. The farmer, the environment and the consumer are all part of a great juggling act. But, if this was a well-managed transition we would see the farmer as the keystone of change with the needs of the consumer and the environment built around him or her.
To this end, in my humble opinion the following actions should be considered:
- Protection from goods of lower environmental and welfare standards including finished and processed goods that have these ingredients.
- A proper regulated Carbon Credit system, with also proper regulated nitrate offset/credit systems regulated in the similarly to financial markets.
- A proper and well thought out polluter pays system that fully takes into account how farmers can mitigate the problem and also apply this to industry
- Water management systems with farmers at the centre of the process ensuring appropriate land can maintain production
- Protection of all grade 1 and most grade 2 land to be retained in effective and commercially viable agricultural production.
I will briefly look at each of these points:
Protection from imports of lower environmental and welfare standards than the UK including goods imported and manufactured with those ingredients. For example, I propose a tax on palm oil to recognise the environmental damage caused by its production. This would drive down the commercial market for this product. Similar conditions could apply to rape seed oil products where neonicotinoids have been used. Can it be right that Uk neonicotinoid free rape can be replaced by say German rape that has benefitted from this pesticide? This does not conflict with free trade principles as it is not driven to protect the UK market, or as an act of aggression against another country, but rather it is seeking to protect standards and principles that nearly all countries have a vested interest in sharing. In this way we can use our high standards to influence the market or to increase the domestic market to fill the gap where standards are not met. There are some importers that can easily match or exceed or standards, for example grass fed New Zealand lamb, beef and venison where the grass grows throughout the year without fertilizer, or North American and Canadian wheat that can be grown with fewer inputs and therefore lower environmental impact than in most of the UK, or Argentinian beef that is reared (largely British breeds) with no hormones or antibiotics and primarily raised on Pampas pastures that many a farmer would be envious of. The fact is that being green often means producing a product where it requires the least amount of inputs so often, not always, financial cost matches cost to the environment. By allowing cheaper greener meat it may enable us to convert some of our more intensive production, such as chicken, to lower intensive methods and even higher welfare standards than we have today. Can it be right that I have in my freezer three large UK produced chickens that cost £2.49 each when in 1980 the equivalent would cost about £1.54, which equates to £6.76 – so in effect chicken was 2.7 times more expensive in real terms in 1980. Having been inside a chicken shed in 1980 and in recent years in my experience welfare standards have much improved, but quality has not as production methods are geared to rewarding the adding of weight whilst being efficient with feed. Should chicken be more of a luxury product and say cheap beef produced in good welfare and environmental standards from abroad be allowed to bridge the gap? I am unsure of the answer. But I do believe farmers should be allowed to produce goods in the UK on an even playing field of environmental and welfare standards. In this way we can lead by example using the purchasing power of a rich densely populated country.
Carbon Credit markets – there must be a properly regulated and standardised carbon credit market. In my opinion financial bodies and the Financial Conduct Authority is best positioned to establish this. This is essential, for at the moment it is like the wild west with various bodies creating schemes of their own or making promises to the consumer that do not have a clear audit trail or a definite benefit to the environment. Planting trees is no good if they are planted in the wrong place, not maintained or simply in such a way as to harm habitat. The whole system at the moment is ripe for fraud, greenwashing and the credits themselves have little or no protection. The simple fact is that I could set up a scheme tomorrow and use it to con thousands out of unsuspecting individuals.
Polluter Pays principles and markets that are developing also need clear management and regulation. Polluter pays is fine in principle, but there is a danger of the farmer picking up the tab for everyone else’s pollution because he is a clearly identifiable source. This is difficult to quantify, for example, if a farmer spreads waste pellets processed from the sewage farm on his land is he actually a polluter or is he actually providing a service that allows everyone else’s waste to be processed. The same may be said of waste from composting sites or anaerobic digesters. The whole concept of polluter pays needs a wide observation and thought process. Unintended consequences should ideally be predicted. As with any tax a full understanding of financial, and in this case environmental, winners and losers is needed.
Water – clearly a joined up water supply usage and drainage policy is needed that protects the agricultural use of grade 1 and most grade 2 land.
Protection of grade 1 and where appropriate grade 2 land for commercially viable agricultural use is in my opinion an essential and proportionate protection of the country’s farming land asset. My reasoning requires a little understanding of the grade system and how land use develops.
Agricultural land in the UK has since 1966 been conveniently graded into 5 grades that are determined by the selection of crops you can use it for. Grade 1 land can be used for almost anything. My area of South Lincolnshire enjoys great quantities of what the auctioneer would call, “wonderful grade 1 silt.” Grade 2 land has minor limitations that may restrict the viability of certain crops. This land usually requires more inputs or will yield less than grade 1 land. Grade 3 land is moderate agricultural quality with type of crop and timing of a crop cultivation being limited and yields may only be achievable with higher input costs. Grade 3 land is split into two subgrades of 3a and 3b. Whilst there is no subgrade for grade 2 land it is recognised that there is a tendancy for grade 3a land to be talked up to being grade 2 depending upon its history. It is also true that land grade can vary within a field. Grade 4 is poor quality agricultural land. The land is only usually suitable for grass, but arable crops are sometimes seen on this land with resultant low yield and/or higher costs of inputs. Grade 5 is very poor quality agricultural land usually at best used for rough grazing. The only way to fully determine land grade is to get an Agricultural Land Classification survey. Larger scale maps in such a survey reveal patches of different grade within a field, and small scale maps tend to show predominant grades applicable to that block of land.
In addition to grade we need to understand how farmland develops, expands and contacts. Grade 1 and 2 land usually develops by reclamation adjacent to towns, villages and cities usually by drainage or irrigation and land clearance. Farmland initially develops near dwellings because it needed people to cultivate it and initially served the local community. Over time, as agriculture improved its rate of productivity per person the area of land cultivated spread out with previously uncultivated land pressed into agricultural use. In the fens where I currently live that largely involved the drainage of coastal marsh and inland peaty wetlands. The coastal reclamations in my area became some of the best land in the world able to grow several crops in a year. As land is brought into cultivation it usually improved, and in this way, by today’s measurements, land improvesthrough the grades with grade 4 becoming grade 3. In the case of grade 3 land there is a particular feature. In 1966 when current land grade systems were first introduced, grade 3 land was largely pasture only. Nowadays it is common to find grade 3 land growing a variety of arable crops , albeit with a higher level of inputs. This means that the agricultural quality of grade 3 land has in many cases improved. Now here is the ironic thing, that is, as cities, towns and villages grow with people fed by the expanding farmland the land closest to the conurbations gets built on. This pattern is seen where my house is built in Spalding – it was built on prime grade 1 silt land upon which I recall daffodils being grown in my childhood. The nearby roads and council houses built in the 1920’s onwards were similarly built on agricultural land. In this way you get agricultural land converting into housing and industrial land and infrastructure over time like the rings growing on a tree.
Because of this pattern of growth of land usage I believe we need to break the cycle whilst at the same time recognising and protecting the most productive land stock from future development. That is, grade 1 and a large amount of grade 2 land. This is not such a large ask when you consider that only about 2.8% of agricultural land is grade 1 and 14.6% is grade 2 (about 48.9% is grade 3). I believe all grade 1 and most grade 2 land should be protected from development and equally kept productive for arable crops. Lower grade 2 and grade 3 land should revert to pasture or appropriate green farming crops. This also means I am arguing for grade 1 and 2 land to be protected from drought and flood by appropriate water management systems. This may require an environmental offset on lower grades of land, but if industry, energy and service industries can do this, why can’t farming? Also, these higher grade lands by definition tend to require lower inputs, so growing crops on them is greener and using less resources. This is also a very practical means of protecting appropriate arable land, the best arable land, as a national resource to grow food. I know this will not be popular with farmers on grade 3 land, but consider how cost effective it is in terms of growing arable crops in terms of financial and ecological costs and changing how the land is used is actually a means of financial survival. Consider, if meat production is to continue on a greener path nothing is greener than grass being used to feed livestock.
We also need a clear mindset for the public and politicians to understand that re-wilding is not leaving land to grown and develop itself, rather it has to be managed appropriately. The rewilding myth that you buy a bit of land and leave it to its own devises ignores that fact that nearly every habitat in the UK has been shaped by man creating a great diversity. Indeed, with the security of being an island with very few Wars on its own soil Britain was shaped by a nation of farmers long before the phrase “a nation of shopkeepers” was coined. Rewilding is a "miss noma", as whilst it has a place, all land and wildlife can benefit from prudent management alongside man’s activity. If you look at Lincolnshire most of the great Lime Woods in the county were planted by Romans; if you left the former lost heathlands around Lincoln alone, they would not revert to heathland, rather they would possibly become scrubland, for heathland requires managed grazing. The landscape needs to be managed with nature, not left to become unmanaged scrub. This means I am seeking to protect the most efficient and best located arable farmers. That does not exclude them from being cyclical farmers, its just that the cycle may be achieved without livestock protecting soil with various creative methods. It is in my opinion madness to develop really productive farmland and then let the resource waste by putting it to any other use. It is a waste of energy and environmental resource that could be better applied to lower grade land. Once the resource is lost it will not be regained.
Finally I have one fear, and that is that we replace the cottage industry of bureaucracy that has saddled the farmer with a range of expensive services to manage that bureaucracy with a new, even worse, woolly and unregulated bureaucracy that has the farmer chasing their own tale trying to keep everyone happy. The slaughterman slaughters, the haulage driver transports goods, the agronomist advises on crops, the banker lends money, the seed merchant sells seed. Yes all these have regulations to follow, but at the apex the poor bloody farmer hardly gets chance to just farm.