Farmers’ union blasts National Trust over ‘damaged countryside’ portrayal

The National Trust has come under fire from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) after it called for reforms of farming subsidies post-Brexit to reverse the damage of the natural environment. 

The Trust has called on the government to put a focus on restoring the natural environment when it introduces a funding system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It is thought that farmers currently receive £3.1bn a year from the European Union’s CAP programme.

‘Reform is essential’

According to the conservation charity, reform is essential to reverse decades of damage to the countryside. The EU referendum, said the National Trust, presents an opportunity to create a “new and better system” to monitor the countryside.

“Whatever your view of Brexit, it gives us an opportunity to think again about how and why we use public money to create the countryside we want to hand on to future generations,” said Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the Trust.

“Unless we make different choices, we will leave an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited.”

Ghosh highlighted that taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but are valued and needed by the public.

Strong reaction

The NFU has reacted strongly to the Trust’s comments. Meurig Raymond, president, said: “The picture the National Trust is trying to paint – that of a damaged countryside – is one that neither I nor most farmers, or visitors to the countryside, will recognise. Farmers have planted or restored 30,000km of hedgerows, for example, and have increased the number of nectar and pollen-rich areas by 134% in the past two years.”

He said that farmers take their relationship with the countryside seriously.

“In this debate we must not forget that food production is vital,” Raymond added. “We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food. To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself.”

According to the NFU, food security should be considered a legitimate public goal. “British farmers are proud of the high standards of production, traceability of the food they produce and high animal welfare. British food production is the bedrock of the food and drink sector, which is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, contributing £108 billion to the economy and employing nearly four million people.

“All our survey work shows that the British public wants to buy more British food and, interestingly, survey work shows the British public believes farmers play a beneficial role in improving the environment at the same time.”

‘No conflict’

However, Ghosh did argue that there’s “no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends” in the long run.

She said this is too important an issue for government and farmers solely to be left to find a solution. “We would encourage ministers to now consult widely on the way we fund farming in a post-Brexit world and involve the public in the debate, along with organisations who have experience and insights to share.”

Ghosh outlines six principles that any new system should deliver to the public:

1)    Public money must only pay for public goods
2)    It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it
3)    Nature should be abundant everywhere
4)    We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long term and on a large scale
5)    Farmers who deliver the most public benefit should get the most
6)    We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature

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