Dieter Helm CBE will be speaking at our upcoming conference, Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions, about how farmers can make sustainable agriculture pay. He is a Professor of Economic Policy at Oxford University and Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, an organisation that advises the government on the sustainable use of our natural assets.

Dieter is the author of several books including Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside which was published this year. The book argues that we have so far prioritised our economy over the environment, yet the actual cost of this is huge, both in terms of our environment and our health and wellbeing. For example, we pay people to clean up pollution in our rivers and waste on our beaches, when instead we should be putting a higher value on our natural capital and penalising those who damage or destroy it.

Modern agriculture is at the top of Dieter’s list for reform, with the current subsidy system resulting in the taxpayer getting very little in terms of public goods, in return for the money they pay into farming. By focusing on agriculture, as well as rivers, uplands, urban areas and coasts, the book sets out a timely plan for how eco-friendly and sustainable growth can be achieved. This comes at a critical time and is essential reading for anyone involved in this debate! Copies of the book will be available to buy at our conference.

Here, we speak to Dieter about his position on a range of issues.

Do you agree with the principle of public money for public goods, as introduced by Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove, and if so, how would you redirect these payments which farmers have received without preconditions until now?

Yes, I do agree with the principle. There are a variety of ways of allocating the money. There needs to be a set of broad priorities for river catchments and uplands, as well as farmland outside of these areas. In my book Green and Prosperous Land, I set out how each of these might be organised. Then I would like to encourage farmers – or better, groups of farmers – to build in enhancements to natural capital, along with the costs and verifications.

Given your support for the polluter pays principal, why do you think that there is such reluctance in Government circles for it to be applied in relation to chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture?

Farmers have in the NFU, one of the most impressive lobbying organisations and they have managed to head off paying for the pollution costs that the taxpayer now largely pays for. The NFU has also had the minister responsible for agriculture and the chair of the DEFRA Select Committee as members. But what the lobbyists can’t do is stop the consequences of that pollution, and the recent rise in general environmental concerns amongst the public means that the case for making polluters pay is getting ever stronger.

What would unlock this?

Recognition that pollution is inefficient and raises costs to others, hence reducing our economic output and the path of economic growth. The key is to show how the money would be better spent on positive environmental outcomes. 

If a tax is raised on agricultural inputs, could there be a case for using that revenue in the form of soil carbon payments?

There are lots of things that the money could be spent on, only one of which is carbon.

What is your position on the importance of valuing the impacts of farming and food systems on social and human capital?

All the benefits and costs should be valued. Leaving them out does not make them go away.

Do you agree with the conclusion of the SFT’s report, The Hidden Cost of UK Food, that half, or even more, of all agriculture and food systems externalities are linked to damage to public health?

There are very important physical and mental health benefits from natural capital. The precise amount is a matter of debate.

Photograph: Chloe Edwards

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