Public Goods can help keep farmers farming

By John Martin of Nature Matters NI

For the first time in nearly half a century an Agriculture Bill has been brought forward in Westminster. The Bill outlines a significant change in the direction of farm support in England, moving from a system focused mainly on area based payments to payments for public goods such as clean water, fresh air and recreational opportunities.

The proposals do not apply to Northern Ireland but there is no doubt that post-Brexit we will see significant changes to how we pay our farmers.

However this need not be seen as a threat. It could represent a huge opportunity for farmers to maintain payments with less bureaucracy and hopefully a lot more common sense from those who set down the rules for how policy is delivered.

Farmers know the land better than anyone and anything that policy can do to help them in their role as custodians should be encouraged for a number of reasons. If a new agriculture policy was brought forward that led to them being forced out of farming because of a lack of funding that would be disastrous not only for agriculture, but for everyone.

That is why we want to see farmers remain on the land, delivering environmental public goods, and rewarded with public money in return.

The buzz word ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ has been used a lot recently in reference to what the agriculture industry will look like ‘post-Brexit’. This approach represents an opportunity for farmers to show significant value for money on the public money they receive in the future. This will be increasingly important as we move into an era when agriculture will be competing directly with the likes of health and education for budgetary funding.

So what ‘public goods’ could farmers receive funding for in the future? Examples could include :

Catchment scale options which improve our drinking water quality or reduce flood risk for towns and villages eg source to tap projects.

Improving air quality by establishing habitat options that better absorb farm emissions Managing habitats to improve their quality

Help for iconic species such as the Irish hare and curlew which are threatened with extinction

Encouraging planting for the benefit of pollinators such as bees, whose reduction poses a real threat to the whole food chain

Working with government to improve public access. eg greenway projects and walking routes

The definition of public goods does not include the production of food. However, for a system of public money for public goods to work, we have to ensure that farmers receive a fair price for the private goods they produce.

It is understandable that many farmers would be concerned as this would be a departure from what is now perceived to be the norm. The only guarantee on funding we have had has been until 2022.. It is vitally important that the introduction of a new system should not be used as a cover for taking money away from farming and land management, especially in NI, but if funding is to continue, the agri-food sector is going to have to show a significant return on investment to the tax payer.

We need to have clarity here in Northern Ireland on our direction of travel, especially as uncertainty surrounds whether we will have a hard or soft Brexit come March 2019.

It is high time that Northern Ireland showed clear leadership in beginning the transition towards a more sustainable agriculture industry, based on high quality food produced in a high-quality environment. Such a transition will help safeguard the natural environment on which food production depends, helping farmland to remain productive, profitable and resilient in the long term.