Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The free schools principle should be extended to farms

As Education Secretary in 2010 Michael Gove created Free Schools, independent of local authorities. These schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, but they are still assessed by Ofsted, and their pupils are required to sit national exams. Free Schools can be set up by anyone with knowledge and interest - parents, carers, teachers, and by charities or not-for-profit businesses.

Importantly, Free Schools are measured on outcomes, not on their adherence to an over-bearing state prescription for education. They can choose how they teach and inspire their pupils and they can plan their timetables based on their ethos. Free Schools can invest more energy in particular disciplines, such as the arts or agriculture, and they can choose to be much more pupil-led. Unlike private schools, they retain their link to the state.

This principle of freedom, linked to the state but not shackled by it, should now be extended to agriculture.

Free Farms
Since we joined the EU, farmers have been well subsidised, but they have also been governed to an extraordinary level.  As a result, many producers have become better at 'farming the subsidy' than farming the land they manage, and this has often been at the expense of animal welfare and natural capital.

Of course, some farmers are remarkable. They are focussed on quality markets, ready to work co-operatively with others, in touch with the public mood, and staunch guardians of farm animal welfare and the natural world. But for many, the umbilical cord to big government has encouraged complacency and funded the use of inputs which have distanced farmers from traditional humane and regenerative principles.

Subsidies should end and they should be replaced with contracts for direct services. Government should remove itself from the delivery process, and instead implement a robust system for measuring and recording progress against clear outcomes. Outcomes should be linked to a national sustainability framework underpinned by a robust body of law that protects, for example, animal sentience, water quality, and animal and soil health.

Contracts should be held by land managers (rather than land owners) and should be available to new entrants, community groups, and food charities.

Schemes (e.g. Red Tractor or RSPCA Assured) should work with land managers to develop 5-year management plans to deliver against the sustainability goals identified in the national framework. Technology should be employed and progress should be measured and fed back to farmers in real time (where possible), and inspections by schemes should become the mechanism to sign off annual payments.

A greater focus on outcomes
Of course, inputs and outcomes are both important. Farm systems and other inputs have an impact on a producer’s ability to achieve good welfare or environmental improvements - but outcome measures provide a robust basis for analysing success and identifying where further improvements are necessary. There is a need not only to increase the emphasis on outcomes, but also to accurately identify the most important outcomes to measure.

Farm animal welfare outcomes should be considered on a species by species basis, but the core principles are common and can be used to help ensure a good life for all farm animals. To obtain an accurate picture of welfare, outcome measures should focus on Livability (for example the rate of mortality), Disease (including the use of antibiotics), Injury (including bruising, feather pecking, and mutilations such as tail docking), Mobility (for example, gait scores), and Behaviour (an animal’s ability to display natural behaviour, which is the bed-rock of farm animal welfare science).

Environmental outcome measures should focus on Soil improvement (for example reduced nitrogen and phosphorous levels), Land system use (appropriateness of cropping for landscape and soil type), Weather resilience (use of natural flood defences and shelter), Biodiversity improvement (increased flora, carbon sequestration, and measuring bird and butterfly numbers), and Energy neutrality (electricity and diesel use versus production).

Continuous adjustment
It is important to embed outcome measures as part of a day-to-day approach to farming and any new policy must allow flexibility. Outcome measures should become part of a virtuous circle: planning, implementing, measuring, adjusting, planning... This constant feedback will help farmers make system adjustments to address farm animal welfare, soil quality, water management, etc. and will help to create greater overall farm efficiency.

Then, in turn, if payments become dependent on demonstrating progress against these key outcomes, farmers are more likely to keep their ears closely to the ground, plan, ask for advice, innovate, use technology, and test new ideas.

This transition towards sustainable agriculture will be challenging for many conventional producers, so it would also be essential for government to develop its capacity to deliver advice, ideally through a single point of contact. Many schemes would also have to build their knowledge base.

Freedom to succeed
A focus on outcomes would give land managers more responsibility for their own destiny. Farms would be able to develop their own ethos, excellence, brand, and expertise without big government breathing down their necks. Contract payments would help maintain financial sustainability, but for the first time in four decades farmers would be able to take a proper step back and make clear-headed decisions about the most appropriate use of their land.

By focussing on outcomes and by paying farmers to deliver contracted services, the government could empower farmers to take control of their own futures and lead the transition to sustainable agricultural land use.