Monday, 6 March 2017

Agriculture is a public service, it should be more accountable

Brexit gives us the chance to transform British food production into a sustainable and richly-valued public service in which citizens have a real stake.  It's time for a conversation about how accountability and active localism can play a role in agriculture.  

Food production in the UK depends on taxpayer funding and is delivered against a framework of responsibilities agreed with Defra. To put it plainly, farmers are working on a government contract to produce food and manage the landscape. But, unlike other public services, agriculture is almost entirely unaccountable to citizens. 

Most public services go out of their way to demonstrate value for money through public engagement and participation in their strategic processes. Schools have governors and Parent Teacher Associations, hospitals have patient panels, and the police have Safer Neighbourhood Panels. You can also complain easily and expect to be taken seriously.


It is a bizarre quirk of history that has excluded the public from having a say on land use. 

We pay producers £3bn a year (the average farmer receives £28,300versus £2,100 from selling food) to manage nearly three-quarters of our land. Yet the public is excluded from decisions about the way their countryside looks, and people can't complain unless there's visible law breaking. Not only that, but the relationship between many individual farmers and countryside users is poor because of long-standing antipathy, which means that many people are mistrustful of farmers and resent the payments that producers receive.

It's time that British farming started to behave like the public service it is, actively reaching out to citizens to involve them in regional and local farm management plans. Then, rather than worrying about the incremental loss of the Single Farm Payment, farmers would be able to make a substantial, logical defence for continued, or even increased, financial support from taxpayers.  


To deliver this, production-based farm payments should be replaced with payments for public goods and environmental services - but local people should also be able to contribute to local and regional food security and sustainability policy. This would help develop mutual trust and understanding, and ensure that farmers manage the land in accordance with the principles of ethical, environmental, and economic sustainability. If farming, as an industry, sequestered carbon, managed flood water effectively, improved soil quality and biodiversity, improved access, and treated farm animals more humanely, then the case for continued public payments would be simple.

Farmwel believes that when we leave the EU, the system for farm payments should be axed and replaced by a new farm contract, directed and supported by regional stakeholders and local citizens.

Evidence suggests that the re-balancing of this relationship is long overdue. R
ecent polling shows that 98% of Britons say that it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals, and 76% say they should be better protected than they are now. 72% would be prepared to pay more for higher welfare products, and 83% want mandatory method of production labelling for all meat and dairy products. On the environment, 83% of citizens want new laws providing better or the same levels of protection for wild areas and wildlife as current EU laws, and 88% support a continued ban on neonicotinoids, which pose a threat to honey bees. 

The public has strong opinions on sustainability and land management. They also have views on public spending and value for money.  


Good, healthy food should be rewarded by the market, while public goods are financed by the taxpayer. Public payments should be provided through transparent contracts and farm management plans that are published on-line, and citizens should be taken seriously if they complain about standards falling short of expectations.  


There is little doubt that a thriving farming industry is the best and most cost effective way to manage the countryside - but citizens and user groups should now be given a real stake.  In this way, farming can reinvent itself as a sustainable, richly-valued, and well-funded public service.