As part of our exploration of Brexit and future agricultural policy, our Head of Policy, Honor Eldridge, takes a look at Wales and what the future might hold post-Brexit.

Last year, the Welsh Government consulted on Brexit and our land: Securing the future of Welsh farming. In the document, they proposed the adoption of a whole-farm approach, which integrates efficient and sustainable food production with practices that maintain and enhance natural and human capital. The SFT supported their broad-strokes objective to design a new agriculture support system that corrects the economic distortions that currently exist within food and farming and reintegrates food systems in harmony with the natural environment. We felt that such an approach could have multiple benefits, including climate change mitigation, improvements in biodiversity and encouraging better diets and public health outcomes.

However, now comes the detail of how Wales can deliver a sustainable future for agriculture that supports farming livelihoods and promotes a healthy planet, laid out in Sustainable Farming and our Land. To achieve the systemic shift towards more sustainable farming methods, we need to unlock the barriers to change, since the current business model means that most farmers have no option but to employ agricultural practices that do not serve the public interest in terms of its impacts on the environment and public health. Through the new Agriculture Policy framework, the Welsh Government has the opportunity to create an economic environment in which farmers are financially supported for adopting sustainable practices – which will then emerge as the most profitable and economically viable way of producing food.

When we reviewed the original proposals put forward by Welsh Government, we were concerned by the division between the two funding strands of support (‘economic resilience’ and ‘public goods’) and felt that they should be integrated, so that farmers could only receive support for economic resilience if they also deliver public goods. We felt that there was scope within the policy proposed by the Welsh Government to expand the term ‘economic resilience’ to recognise that sometimes farmers need to make capital investments in order to deliver the maximum environmental benefit. This would include no-interest loans to improve slurry stores or the purchase of precision agriculture technologies, for example.

We also strongly advocated for an annual sustainability audit using a framework of harmonised metrics and units of measure to be conducted by farmers to monitor the impact of the funding scheme. The data derived from such an assessment could serve multiple functions. Firstly, reporting of farm data would allow the Welsh Government to have a better understanding of the national situation for each specific public good (such as biodiversity and net carbon emissions). Secondly, by using a comprehensive framework, farmers could benchmark themselves to show that they are delivering on their commitments and provide evidence of the improvement. Lastly, trade organisations and certification bodies (Red Tractor, Leaf, Soil Association) could draw on the audit’s data, as opposed to conducting independent assessments using varied criteria on each farm. This will save time and paperwork for farmers, allowing them to concentrate on growing food in a sustainable manner, and would streamline the delivery process for certification bodies.

When we reviewed the proposals within Sustainable Farming and our Land, we were pleased to see that Welsh Government had taken on board the points that we had previously made. The document recognises that farmers are in a unique position as the people who produce food, shape the landscape and underpin rural communities, to deliver outcomes which benefit Welsh agriculture, environment and society. These outcomes can help improve some of the large problems Welsh society faces in relation to clean air, water quality and soil health.

The core ethos proposed within Sustainable Farming and our Land is that all future support should be designed around the principle of sustainability, bringing together the wide-ranging and significant economic, environmental and social contribution of farmers under one umbrella. The SFT welcomes such an approach. By embedding the concept of ‘Sustainable Land Management’, (which they define as recognising “the use of land for production, while ensuring long-term productive potential and maintenance of key environmental services”), they make it clear that they are following a public money for public goods model (as opposed to income forgone) and want farm support payments to help fill this significant gap and pay for the broad range of environmental benefits farming can provide.

As opposed to the previous proposal laid out in Brexit and our Land, the Welsh Government now advocates a single scheme to support farmers – the ‘Sustainable Farming Scheme’. This is a significant shift from the previous concept of two separate strands – one for productivity (‘economic resilience’) and one for environmental payments (‘public goods’). The single scheme allows for economic, environmental and social needs to be considered more holistically, and we approve of this revision wholeheartedly. Once a farmer has entered the scheme, two complementary types of farm support – the Sustainable Farming Payment and Business Support Payment – allow for support packages to be tailored to a farmer’s specific needs.

Our vision of an annual sustainability audit was also adopted in the revised proposal. In order to qualify for payments, a farmer would have to have a ‘Farm Sustainability Review’ to identify the environmental outcomes that could be delivered on the farm. Upon agreeing a ‘Farm Sustainability Plan’, the farmer would be required to measure the progress annually through a self-assessment toolkit to ensure the correct actions have been implemented and that progress was being made to deliver public good outcomes. We will continue to work with Welsh Government to design a robust and transparent system that gathers comprehensive data through a blend of specific targets, proxies and hard data collection methods. These would include (but not be limited to) monitoring:

  • soil organic carbon levels and microbial life
  • on-farm educational courses for new entrants and apprenticeship offers
  • acreage of forage legume crops
  • levels of on-farm biodiversity
  • quantity of agrichemical application
  • hedgerow mileage and quality
  • on-farm nutrient cycling
  • high welfare management of livestock
  • cultivation of heritage and local breeds
  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • school children visits
  • water infiltration rates
  • antibiotic usage

Ahead of the October 30th deadline, we will be responding to the Welsh Government to provide our thoughts and reflections on their new proposals. We would encourage others to feed into the discussion also and submit their own comments to the consultation. We will continue to report back to our readers about the progress being made in Wales and the future of Welsh agriculture post-Brexit.

Read our policy briefing on Brexit and our land here.

You can read our full submission to Welsh Government on Brexit and our land here.

Photograph: aminorjourney

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