Our countryside faces huge challenges post-Brexit, and the Welsh Government’s plan only scratches the surface

Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia. Photo by Neil Mark Thomas on Unsplash.

Prof Gareth Wyn Jones, former Deputy Executive of the Countryside Council for Wales

Tim Jones, former Operations Director at Natural Resources Wales

The 1947 Agriculture Act provided the basis for financial support to our farmers for some 25 years. It focussed on production to alleviate rationing and to erase the memory of convoys carrying wartime food supplies across the Atlantic.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, support continued through the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), itself a response to war and the memory of recent hunger.

But by the 1980s the problem was overproduction, with wine lakes and butter mountains.

At the same time, intensive farming methods were leading to grievous environmental damage – loss of wildlife and habitats, soil erosion and pollution.

To tackle this problem, the EU devised ways to encourage farmers to protect and improve biodiversity and landscape and to support organic farming and farm woodlands.

By the late 1990s, the CAP had two main elements. A Basic Payment Scheme [BPS] providing income support based on the area farmed but conditional on complying with good agriculture and environmental conditions supported by statutory management standards – for example on animal welfare. The second element was part-EU funded schemes – such as Tir Gofal and Glastir in Wales – to promote wildlife, hedgerow and woodland expansion, and access to the countryside.

With Brexit, these systems, which helped sustain rural Wales and, sought to limit the loss of our wildlife heritage, are ending.

Challenges

What will the Welsh Government decide to do, as this is a devolved responsibility?

How is the Welsh Government planning for a future for Welsh farming, in which emissions of greenhouse gases must be cut drastically?

How will we cope in a world where increased droughts and floods are forecast to decrease production and destabilize supply chains?

Now we’ve left the EU, should we become more self-sufficient?

And there are other critical issues too.

Our farmers, especially in the hills, are ageing. They are heavily dependent on CAP’s income support and – especially in the sheep sector – on the now more problematical markets on mainland Europe. Attracting the next generation of dynamic farmers is a major challenge.

Wales is geographically and climatically well suited to growing grass but grazing livestock, especially cattle, produce large volumes of methane, a potent if short-lived greenhouse gas.

There are also social and environmental pressures to reduce the consumption of red meat and dairy products as a contribution to net-zero emissions by 2050.

With the publication of the Welsh Government’s White Paper on Agriculture for consultation, we must consider the challenges that must be overcome if we are to find a vibrant, sustainable way ahead for farming and the Welsh Countryside.

Picture by Hybu Cig Cymru

Jeopardy

The White Paper attributes 13 per cent of Wales’ greenhouse gas emissions to farming and land use. But this omits the emissions embedded in the production of agri-chemicals, especially nitrogen fertilizers, and all the emissions from processing, storage, transport, and refrigeration, before the food arrives at our homes.

Even in an economy with a residual heavy industry base such as ours, total food chain emissions amount to well over 20 per cent.

We are rightfully committed to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions within a lifetime., Sadly, WG has failed to implement the recommendations agreed they agreed a decade ago to curb Wales’ greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use, for example by expanding woodlands, better managing agricultural soils and peatlands.

Our systems for protecting our wildlife heritage are also under extreme pressure. Many legally protected sites are in poor condition and, in some cases, their scientific value is threatened. Some of this is due to climate change, but it is also due to changes in land management and lack of resources to manage them.

Our wildlife – and indeed human health – is threatened by air and water pollution, encroaching development and flooding and other damage from increasingly extreme weather events.

It is a matter of deep disappointment that these core dilemmas – and the profound challenges to farm livelihoods and to the management of our natural resources – scarcely register in the White Paper.

The inheritance of Thatcher and Blair and the shadow of DEFRA and the English agenda looms large. But is it the way forward for Wales in this uncertain world? Ironically, the withdrawal of support for the core business of farming and its exposure to the global food market could jeopardise the delivery of vital environmental public goods.

Certainly, there are likely to be conflicts in how farmers maintain viable businesses. Do they concentrate on income from the food market or the public goods market? Can they find the right blend of complementary practices to deliver both?

Innovative thinking and new policies are needed, sensitive to our cool, wet climate and hilly geography. Sensitive too to our social inheritance of relatively small farms, a significant proportion of which are homes to Welsh-speaking families.

Picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

 

Uncertainty

In outlining WG’s vision for agriculture over the next 15-20 years, is the White Paper innovative and visionary?

Far from it, in our opinion. There are plenty of warm words about Sustainable Land Management but sadly little detail. It lacks any hint of the funding involved. Thousands of livelihoods and the future of our wildlife and landscapes are on the line, but that is not acknowledged.

One clear intention is to remove any basic income support completely; this for the first time since the 1930s and at a time of huge global uncertainty.

Welsh farming is to compete in the international marketplace on quality, not price; tacitly it is acknowledged that more favoured locations will produce more cheaply. There is a nod to the desirability of shorter local supply chains but no clear indication how these will be achieved.

The major change is a ‘new’ income stream for farmers  (Sustainable Farming Scheme) for supplying environmental goods and services to the public (although Tir Gofal was based on this principle), underpinned by a new set of National Minimum Standards.

These voluntary public goods include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting wildlife, adapting to climate change with nature networks and flood prevention, reducing pollution, and a modest target for annual woodland creation.

However, WG has produced no details about how the public goods scheme would work on a farm or how the income support would compare with CAP’s income support. Will it build on the experience of Tir Gofal and Glastir? There is a wealth of practical experience to draw on.

At all costs, WG needs to avoid introducing a scheme of payment by results with substantial administrative costs and a ‘lumpy’ payment system.

Picture by Humphrey Muleba

Instability

How will farmers react? How will they plan for their future businesses?

With the paucity of detail and total absence of any hint about funding, with great difficulty.

If you have a large farm on better land, then the logic is to intensify, maybe diversify, and compete in the marketplace. Farmers with large upland holdings, with extensive mountain grazing, will likely decrease sheep numbers but benefit from the production of environmental goods.

But what of the middle ground, both geographically and economically? The fear is that some will go bust without the basic income support, others will just sell up and retire. There is the real prospect of consolidation into far fewer, larger farms. Expect rural depopulation and social disruption; a further decline in already fragile mental health amongst farmers? Could we face the prospect of large ‘investors’ stepping in to own these ‘ranches’ employing local managers, as in New Zealand?

Our deepest fears is that the whole rural economy and social fabric will suffer, although the second home market will likely benefit. Ironically, our competitors in Scotland and Ireland will be better protected and more competitive. The equivalent Scottish Government White paper is based on the four principles – Stability, Simplicity, Sustainability and Security. Ours offers ‘Instability’, likely years of uncertainty and reduced investment, limited improvements in environmental sustainability especially in relation to climate change and no increase in food security.

In 1947, UK policy focused on food production. But, in 2021, the equation is much more complex.

Yes, we need reliable food supplies in the face of climate change and a global population of 7.8 billion and rising. But, at the same time, we must reverse biodiversity loss, achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, support our rural communities and adapt to a new world.

These are massive challenges.

This White Paper only scratches the surface.

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