At a reception held by the RSPB in Westminster, Michael Gove – who was appointed to lead the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) after the General Election in June – described “intensive agricultural production” as the biggest threat (along with climate change) to biodiversity.
He said leaving the European Union (EU) – for which he was a prominent campaigner – was an opportunity to both change and improve the way we currently support farming.
“What I want to do, with the help of everyone in this room, is redesign the system of agricultural support so that – yes – we ensure our land remains productive, but sustainably so, and in future we use the £3.1bn that currently goes to agriculture not just to support food production, but environmental benefits,” Gove told the audience of RSPB staff and supporters, as well as MPs and members of the House of Lords from all parties.
At present, subsidies are distributed to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy, which gives out money almost entirely according to how many hectares of productive land they manage – the more you own, the higher your income.
The Farmland Bird Index, which charts (and then combines) the population fluctuations of 19 species of native farmland birds and which Gove described as “the single best measure of biodiversity that we have”, has declined by more than 50% since 1970.
Many conservationists want to see the current subsidies system replaced with one that rewards farmers for the environmental benefits they yield.
These could be the production of clean drinking water, carbon storage through protection of peat moorlands or increasing numbers of insect pollinators – what economists and others call ‘natural capital’.
Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, welcomed Gove’s comments, saying it was “pretty clear we are winning some arguments around the need for public money to be going towards public goods, such as environmental services provided by farmers.”
Harper added: “The challenge is how do you translate all those good, fine words into tangible action. The test will be the content of [Defra’s] 25-year plan and the content of the Fisheries and Farming Bills, which have got to come through the system [as a result of Brexit].
“At the same time, he is going to have to influence his colleagues in other parts of the Government to make sure all those strong environmental principles enshrined in European law find their way into UK law.”
The largest farming body, the NFU, told BBC Wildlife in a statement last year that there were opportunities offered by Brexit to reform the subsidy system.
“We want more British food on consumers’ plates, to be less reliant on subsidies and to get greater respect for our environmental role,” it said. “Farming produces many benefits, but food is often overlooked.”
Main image: Michael Gove speaking at the reception in Westminster. © Ben Andrew/RSPB Images