Written evidence submitted by National Farmers Union
The NFU represents 55,000 members across England and Wales. In addition, we have 20,000 NFU Countryside members with an interest in farming and rural life.
Introduction: The NFU’s Vision of a Green Recovery
The agriculture sector is uniquely positioned to deliver broad environmental outcomes whilst simultaneously driving productivity and levelling up economic growth and job opportunities in rural economies through leveraging improvements in built infrastructure alongside green infrastructure.
How can any fiscal and economic stimulus packages be aligned with the UKs ambition on net-zero, biodiversity, the circular economy, and Sustainable Development Goals?
The impact of COVID-19 has been significant on rural communities with lockdown threatening the viability of many rural businesses due in part to the loss of hospitality and food service markets for farmers, reduced capital investment due to low business confidence and a reduction in rural tourism. As the Government and industry begin work to revive the economy, the current Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has said that we have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rebuild the economy and its resilience against the threat of climate change. Going further, this is also an opportune moment to accelerate the levelling-up agenda, promoting regional and rural economic growth in order to support a just rural transition towards net zero where no community is left behind in the drive for a more sustainable economy. We believe that both green and built infrastructure improvements in tandem can work together to provide significant synergies to realise a more resilient, vibrant, and sustainable rural economy.
In this endeavour, the agriculture sector has the ability to directly enhance a broad range of natural capital contributing towards net zero targets, biodiversity improvements and improvements in water quality and flow amongst a range of other ecosystem services. In line with the green recovery agenda, agricultural investment in built and natural solutions which create and enhance natural capital is simultaneously able to enhance farm productivity whilst also stimulating demand for rural tourism, local contractors, trade and services from rural SME’s to support the green transition. To put this into context, 65% of farm businesses have a diversified activity with a fifth hosting solar energy, a tenth hosting other forms of renewable energy and a significant proportion operating food processing, retailing, hospitality and leisure enterprises. Therefore, enabling green investment will be to work with motivated entrepreneurial businesses who can provide a unique route to levelling up economic progress, especially in remote rural areas. Working with farming is particularly relevant to the manufacturing sector where British agriculture is the bedrock to the agri-food sector worth £120 billion to the UK economy and employing 13% of the workforce. As such, investment in a sustainable farming sector will underpin and shape the recovery and resilience of the agri-food sector as it recovers and adapts following Covid-19.
The Local Industrial Strategies being established by BEIS alongside Mayoral Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships as well as the development of the Shared Prosperity Fund being led by MHCLG have the potential to play a central role in the green recovery and the levelling up agenda as do the agriculture specific land management measures being devised by DEFRA. As such, it is crucial that the role of British farmers and growers in driving the green recovery is reflected within emerging cross-departmental policies in order to catalyse rural economic growth in a manner consistent with the need to safeguard and enhance our natural capital.
To achieve our aim of meeting net zero by 2040, we will need a range of measures, including improving farmland carbon storage. Specifically, enhancing hedgerows, increasing tree planting (including single trees, agroforestry and woodland planting) and boosting soil organic matter all contribute to our farmland carbon storage.
Policy must develop to address the current barriers that exist which prevent farmers from engaging in tree planting activities, for example the low payment rates which do not cover ongoing maintenance costs or the minimum eligibility threshold of 3 hectares for planting grants through the current Countryside Stewardship scheme. It is crucial going forward that farmers that volunteer to engage with tree planting on farm are offered a fair financial reward to cover the upfront capital, the ongoing maintenance and a price that reflects the long-term commitment being delivered. To enable the uptake required to help meet the Governments manifesto commitment, tree planting must work for farming business’, alongside food production and it must be incentivised to attract land managers and owners. All forms of trees, including those found in hedgerows, single trees found on farm, lines of trees and woodlands must be encouraged and recognised for their environmental benefits.
During the past 30 or so years, there has been substantial engagement by farmers with voluntary environment schemes, with 70% of agricultural land in agri-environment schemes at their peak. We have seen a drop-off in the uptake of agri-environment schemes in recent years – largely driven by changes in policy, design, deliverability and accessibility. There is now a window of opportunity to rectify this decline in uptake with a future environmental policy that consists of a mix of incentive schemes, including an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), complemented by new approaches to funding environmental delivery, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services, and industry-led action to improve environmental delivery. There are a number of actions that need to be taken to facilitate the join up between net zero and farmland carbon storage as well as other forms of natural capital.
Improve Countryside Stewardship
A more near-term course of action government can take to invest in net zero and natural capital is to make continued improvements to Countryside Stewardship, the current farm-based agri-environment scheme, to offer better incentives to farmers to participate. Countryside Stewardship agreements may be still be in place until 2028, so ensuring that farmers can still participate is key.
Ensure timely rollout of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS)
The Government must ensure that the future Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) takes a holistic approach to environmental objectives across the landscape in tandem with promoting productive farming; the dual ambitions of environmental and productivity gains should be viewed as entirely compatible. From 2024, ELMS, will start to be rolled out and from 2028, the scheme is anticipated to be fully operational. It should seek to deliver for water and air quality and landscape character. The scheme can deliver for wildlife, natural flood management, historic environment, soil management, climate change mitigation and adaptation, woodland, forestry and upland areas. We have seen the significant role for society that access to the wider countryside has played during Covid-19. It is also an important way for the farming industry to engage with the consumers and for these reasons we believe it should remain a feature of the future scheme. The effective development and delivery of this scheme has the potential to play a key role in growing the rural economy. Capital grant funding to improve infrastructure will stimulate investment in local contractors, trades and SME’s to promote jobs in green infrastructure development. In addition, the access and amenity value associated with enhanced landscapes would help support rural tourism, an area which has been acutely impacted by Covid-19, but which also has the potential for a strong revival with domestic tourism displacing international destinations. This focus on staying local has clear environmental benefits in reducing transport emissions whilst boosting local economies.
In what areas should interventions be targeted to deliver both economic and environmental benefits in the short and long term?
Investment priorities to drive green growth in the agriculture sector include,
Investment in integrated water infrastructure (Sustainable water for food and environment)
Food security is a national priority as the government pledges “to enable an innovative, productive and competitive food supply chain from farm and sea to fork, that invests in its people and skills”. There is a clear opportunity for British farming to become a global leader in delivering food security as outlined in the NFU’s ‘The Future of Food 2040’ report while managing water sustainably. Key to the delivery of more integrated management of water will be the construction of more sustainable and resilient water infrastructure (built interventions as well as the way water is used) that recognises and adequately values it’s benefit to the environment, communities and the economy. Approaches to flood and drought risk management need to ‘join up’, to be more innovative and more ambitious. In particular we should no longer discard ‘surplus’ freshwater into the sea when other communities are crying out for the resource.
Our case for water for food is based on:
Infrastructure to meet net zero, air and water quality targets
Investment in modern and new buildings and infrastructure, such as slurry storage, all have a huge role to play in helping the agriculture sector retain the capacity to produce food while also improving air quality and animal health and welfare outcomes. If the agricultural sector is to meet a number of challenges in future, including to meet ‘net zero’ or meet the requirements of the Clean Air Strategy, new agricultural development will be needed. A case in point is the interpretation of the Dutch Nitrogen cases (C 293/17 and C 294/17). However, we are increasingly seeing that relevant authorities have insufficient certainty that a plan or project (planning permissions, permit, etc) would not have an adverse effect on the EU protected site(s) and so these plans and projects are unable to pass ‘appropriate assessment’ required under the Habitats Directive. If an increasingly precautionary approach is taken by regulators and local planning authorities then modernisation, but also improvement in our emissions reductions, will be hampered in some rural areas. Such investment also supports economic growth in rural economies where capital investment generally requires spending with contractors to deliver the output, benefiting the wider economy. Farm businesses usually deal with local trades and SMEs. There are a number of key existing avenues for supporting investment which the Government should look to build upon and strengthen.
The pause in economic activity, fall in traffic, and increasing in working from home during the lockdown has resulted in rapid reductions air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; what measures can be utilised in the recovery to continue these trends as economic activity resumes?
A key area of opportunity is a focus on greening supply chains and prioritising domestic sourcing to lower transportation footprints, promote high environmental standards and enhance supply chain resilience. The role of domestic food production and the development of local agri-food businesses should be a key component for any approach to a green recovery. More broadly, green recovery should be addressed through “place-based” actions, where particular consideration is given to the challenges and opportunities of different areas.
Our recommendations include: