To many environmentalists, the new agriculture bill for England and Wales seemed too good to be true. Instead of providing subsidies simply for owning and cultivating land, the bill – widely seen as a departure from previous farming governance under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – promised “public money for public goods”. That meant farmers could expect state aid if they delivered things that everyone benefits from, but that the market doesn’t reward – such as clean air and water, biodiversity and access to beautiful landscapes.
Unfortunately, experience from the past 30 years of public goods-based agricultural policies in the UK and across the EU shows that rather than protecting or enhancing the environment, this approach only accelerates the race to the bottom for farming standards. Here’s why.
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1. These payments are carrots, but we need sticks
The public goods approach is based on landowners voluntarily providing environmental services in exchange for a subsidy. However, other subsidies are also on offer. The agriculture bill indicates that subsidies could be awarded for “improving productivity,” without necessarily providing public goods.
The most cost-effective way to increase productivity is often to rely on harmful pesticides and intensive animal farming, because these approaches reduce labour costs. These ecologically destructive practices would not only be permitted, but potentially rewarded in future policy.
Even activities such as running consultancies and farm auctions could be eligible for subsidies, so it really isn’t the case that farmers have to be producing public goods to receive public money.
On top of this, the most environmentally destructive farms do not need any public subsidies. Megafarms, which are among the most resource-intensive and polluting farms, tend to be profitable without any financial assistance – so for them, public goods subsidies are irrelevant.
Regulation is needed to prevent environmentally destructive practices. Instead of this stick, the public goods approach provides a carrot which not all farms will go for.
2. Unlikely to change farming practices
Farmers or land managers do not necessarily need to be producing food to receive public goods subsidies. This might result in the creation of more wildflower meadows or rewilded areas in England and Wales, but it would leave the majority of food to be produced in environmentally destructive ways.
This is because it is likely that relatively less profitable farms would opt for rewilding, while more profitable but less ecologically sensitive farms, either at home or abroad, would pick up the shortfall in food production.
If we care about the environment, then we must consider our ecological footprint across the entire food system.
3. Pockets of habitat don’t work for wildlife
You may still think that it’s worth creating more wildflower meadows despite the flaws in our food system. While there are certainly benefits in conserving or rewilding some of the land, we now know that our landscape is a mosaic of interlinked habitats.
If parts of that mosaic are inhospitable to insects, birds and other wildlife, such as places where industrial farming practices continue, then these species will still suffer, even when habitats are created in other areas. This is because many of these creatures need to be able to migrate across entire landscapes.
Pesticides and pollutants such as ammonia contaminate both the air and water far beyond a farm’s borders, while also contributing to climate change.
Trying to save wildlife on one patch of land while other areas are still dedicated to industrial agriculture simply doesn’t work for biodiversity.
4. Subsidies will go for low-hanging fruit
The public goods approach isn’t new. The UK and EU have run agri-environmental schemes based on the public goods model since the 1990s. These have compensated farmers on the basis of “income foregone” – or the income gap between their normal business operations and those which produce public goods.
Because the income farmers forego when they make the switch is much greater for intensive producers operating on high-quality agricultural land, subsidies have, historically, targeted the less productive and more marginal producers (such as farms in the hills and uplands), because it is cheaper for the government.
This has left intensive, environmentally destructive farms untouched.
5. No action on causes of unsustainable farming
Farmers currently need to cut costs ruthlessly to remain competitive. Mechanisation, large-scale operations, monocropping and the use of chemicals are largely substitutes for more labour-intensive ecological approaches.
To address these competitive pressures, we need more radical changes, along the lines of land reform and trade regulation.
Land reform can ensure it isn’t competitiveness that enables someone to acquire or keep land, but rather the amount of societal benefit they can provide in the form of healthy food and ecosystems. This would be a genuine commitment to the public good.
Better trade rules are needed so that our farmers are not forced to compete with farmers operating with lower environmental or welfare standards elsewhere. Unfortunately, an amendment to the bill to this effect was rejected.
We know how to produce food in ecologically sound ways. Agricultural markets as they currently exist will not support this, and the public goods approach does nothing to address it. While the rhetoric sounds good, environmentalists must not fall for this red herring.
Elise Wach is a co-founder of Frome Field to Fork, which produces ecological food on the outskirts of Frome, Somerset. She is also a Research Advisor at the Institute of Development Studies.
Previously, Elise has received funding from the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation and the New Field Foundation for research related to agroecological food systems in England. She has also participated in the International Social Science Council project on Transitions to Sustainability which included a component in England related to agroecology.