Chris Packham, alongside a host of other influential conservationists, farmers, researchers, campaigners, and students have just published their first draft of a people’s manifesto for wildlife.
Whilst reading through the 200 suggestions it became clear that this publication has been based on robust scientific evidence alongside an integrated approach from the ‘ministers’. This is something which governmental departments themselves often fail to achieve; for example, it is clear from existing policies that Defra and the Department of Health don’t communicate effectively leading to disparities and no robust food plan covering food production and human health. Prof. Tim Lang has been pointing issues like this out for a long time, yet even the newly proposed agricultural bill fails to cover food in any sense.
Anyway, I thought I’d post a few of of the suggestions from the manifesto which relate specifically to water, soil, and farming, as those are the areas I’m working on for my PhD. I’m by no means an expert but I care deeply about the future of the countryside and hope that the government will take heed of at least some of the recommendations made.
So what’s the problem with our environment?
I’ve personally heard people deny the extent of the problems facing the UK’s natural environment, by giving examples of all the wildlife they’ve seen (usually they’ve seen a single butterfly and think that means we’re doing fine?). Yes, there are still some butterflies and some bees, bats, hedgehogs, beetles and so forth, but it’s a fraction of what there should be.
Between 1970-2013, 56% of UK species declined and of 8000 species assessed, 15% are threatened with extinction. The UK is therefore one of the MOST nature depleted countries in the world. – State of Nature Report, 2016
It’s unacceptable that the remaining wildlife we have is so often normalised; it isn’t enough and it isn’t sustainable.
A key suggestion: A new, independent body to represent conservation and the environment
The main driving force for the manifesto is a desire to form an independent public service body to oversee all conservation and environmental issues: LIFE UK. This proposed body would require significant long term funding independent to the government so that it is left unaffected by party politics and lobbying.
How would this be paid for?
According to the manifesto, it would be publicly funded through a scaled independent tax (similar to the TV license we pay the BBC). They argue that if we want wildlife back, it has to be paid for.
Suggestions relating to farming
Before I list the suggestions made in the manifesto, I’m going to reiterate that the manifesto is not trying to ostracise farmers; it clearly states that ‘farmers are not the problem – they are the solution’.
Industrial farming is absolutely central to the environmental struggles the UK faces, but it is not the farmers fault. Individual farmers are rarely the issue and are usually the key to a solution. The problem lies with the fact that the farmers working to help the environment are typically improving relatively small areas which sadly, isn’t enough to make a large scale difference.
‘Some people think that ‘farmers’ and ‘environmentalists’ are locked in a fight about nature. I don’t.’
‘I am a farmer. I want more nature in our countryside. These two statements are not in conflict’ – James Rebanks, Shepherd and author of ‘The Shepherd’s Life’
The NFU (National Farmers’ Union) is specifically targeted in this manifesto as being led by personally motivated individuals with vested interests contrary to the farming population. The manifesto argues that it is not in fact a union at all as it is not a democratic association of workers and it does not represent the entire farming community. The lack of attention given to small farms is meagre, and their strong relationships with large agri-businesses such as Syngenta are notable and likely to influence their stances on matters such as the neonicotinoid pesticide ban.
Suggestions directly affecting agriculture:
1. Call an immediate halt to the badger cull and launch a publicly funded badger vaccination programme instead
This is a very contentious topic at the moment with firm believers on both sides. Personally, I agree with this suggestion because there doesn’t appear to be enough conclusive scientific evidence to warrant a huge cull of a protected species (£50 million of taxpayer’s money has been spent since 2013 and the cull has just been extended even further). The manifesto also suggests a variety of other measures for reducing TB transmission, including improved testing, tighter movement and biosecurity controls, and a TB cattle vaccination programme.
2. Ban driven grouse shooting
I know relatively little about this, but have seen it discussed a lot on Twitter. The manifesto argues that it is destructive and has led to persecution of protected birds of prey and slaughter of mountain hares (which are already rare!). Furthermore, the manifesto states that upland areas are being damaged by the management used for grouse hunting, leading to flooding and the burning of moors resulting in a loss of important blanket bogs.
3. Set a target for a 50% reduction in the weight of pesticides used and the number of applications per field by 2022
Sound unrealistic? Well, France have already set themselves that target so evidently not. The manifesto also suggests introducing a pesticide tax similar to one imposed by Denmark, with the revenue used to fund an independent advisory service for farmers.
I am studying advice as part of my PhD research and I personally do believe that a more integrated advisory service will be vital after the onset of Brexit, regardless of whether the money comes from a pesticide tax or from elsewhere. Farmers are likely to have huge adjustments to make and they will need support both in terms of their businesses and their personal lives.
‘Farmers induced by agrichemical companies have ignored the past and stolen the future’ – Henry Edmunds, Farmer and Conservationist
4. Reform the tax system to ensure tax benefits are only provided in terms of public goods
This seems to be in line with the government’s thinking; public money for public goods appears to be the main message of the recently published first reading of the new agricultural bill.
5. Focus on increasing domestic fruit and vegetable production with special support for small-scale producers
6. Launch a public education campaign to change our diets: less meat, more fruit, veg, and pulses.
I completely agree with this; current meat consumption is unsustainable and we all need to eat less meat. That doesn’t necessarily mean going vegan, but eating meat once a week instead of every day could make a huge difference if we all made that change.
7. Pay farmers a fair price for the food they produce in return for producing it much more sustainably
8. Set a target of rewilding at least 10% of the uplands immediately
I agree with this in principle as from what I’ve learnt so far I think rewilding would be hugely beneficial. However, the social effects of this could be detrimental. Farming is a way of life, not just a job, so any farmers being asked to rewild their land and become ‘wardens’ rather than farmers are likely to struggle. This struggle would obviously be even more marked if farmers were forced to give up their land; therefore, although I think immediate rewilding would be great, in reality I think it could take years. If you’d like to learn more about rewilding, check out my previous article about it here!
9. Replant more hedgerows: we still need another 300,000km to get back to where we were 60 years ago
Yep, completely agree there should be more hedgerows. However, I think it may be unrealistic to expect to get back to pre-WWII lengths as at the end of the day some machinery is probably always going to be used? I also think quality may be more important than quantity as well as ensuring the hedgerows have good connectivity to provide extensive wildlife corridors.
Suggestions relating to water quality
1. Set up a nationwide scheme to measure levels of pesticides in soil and rivers
I also think there needs to be much more monitoring of other pollutants such as sediment and emerging pollutants which involve contaminants such as microplastics, veterinary and human medicines, and household products. There also needs to be more research attention given to examining the effects of multiple pollutants on ecological and human health as although individual levels may be below recommended levels, in combination with other contaminants the effects could be severe.
2. Nationalise water companies so that their land can be managed for multiple benefits including cheaper bills, reduced flood risk, and more wildlife
Sounds intriguing in theory, but I’m not convinced I agree with this but I will read up on it. In the current neoliberal political climate (which I hate!), the trend is sadly towards further privatisation, not nationalisation. I wish this wasn’t the case but sadly with the self-perpetuating establishment we have it is very unlikely that the government will nationalise anything. Don’t get me started on the NHS or the rail companies!
I’m also unsure about the claim that water bills would be significantly lower, as water companies are already regulated by OFWAT. Furthermore, the water companies I’ve dealt with so far in my PhD are all doing huge projects to help the environment (even if it is with the inevitable vested interest of reduced water treatment costs). They have also been forming environmental partnerships with NGOs and government bodies such as ‘Upstream thinking’, so my initial opinion is that they are becoming very aware that they must protect the environment. I’d be interested to learn more about this suggestion so please get in touch if you have any comments about this!
3. Create buffer zones between farmland and rivers to block pollution and flooding and to restore wildlife corridors
In many cases this is already happening; the new farming rules for water (implemented April 2018) have stipulations about buffer strips, and they are also already a big part of cross compliance and countryside stewardship contracts. Under the proposed new agricultural bill this would also likely be deemed a ‘public good’ farmers will be paid to implement.
Suggestions relating to soil health
1. Fund support for zero-till and other types of farming to restore soil health
This is so important. This would also reduce sediment losses to rivers which increase turbidity as well as containing multiple contaminants detrimental to ecological health. If you’d like to read more about this, check out my previous article.
What do I think they’ve missed?
Well, probably not much as there are 200 suggestions made in the manifesto (I’ve only listed the few about farming, water, and soil which jumped out at me in this blog)!
However, one topic I think could be added is assistance for young entrants wanting to get into farming. I also believe that young people should be educated on agriculture and the career prospects, as it currently isn’t even mentioned in most schools (it certainly wasn’t ever mentioned to me!). In particular I think those that aren’t from agricultural backgrounds should be encouraged, as many may feel intimidated if they weren’t ‘born into it’. There should be a drive to not only make farming more financially viable and profitable to make it an attractive career, but social media could be an extremely powerful tool for making farming ‘sexy’ again.
Here’s why I think there needs to be more young farmers:
- Young prospective farmers may often be more willing to learn, innovate, and experiment with environmentally sound farming methods
- Young farmers may be more able to keep up with technological developments which are able to improve the environment (e.g. decision support tools such as ‘What’s in your backyard?’, ‘Crap App’, and ‘PLANET nutrient management’)
- To be honest, young farmers may also be able to produce more food as they may be more physically fit.
That’s not to say I think older farmers should be forced off their land. Any farm succession planning would have to be done extremely sensitively, and there would have to be very careful negotiations made to ensure the social effects are ameliorated as much as possible.
I would love to hear what other people think about the people’s manifesto and I can’t wait to see the next draft! Overall, I think it’s written with passion and puts the governments often unambitious targets to shame.