I have just returned from a conference organised by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), at which I was asked to present my ideas for driving change towards more sustainable livestock farming.
The EEB is the environmental voice of European citizens and Europe’s largest federation of green NGO’s. Its recent conference was all about the European Commission’s Rural Development Policy and its ability to meet objectives for environmental and welfare safeguards. Support for farmers in Europe is moving away from direct payments for production and towards targeted funding to encourage sustainable practices. This is often referred to as the ‘greening’ of the Common Agricultural Policy. However, there are still concerns amongst environmental and animal welfare groups that the proposed reforms are not doing enough to deliver tangible benefits for planet and farm animals.
Much of the messaging British farmers have received has been around ‘sustainable intensification’ – the need to deliver more food from less resources. However, this is seen by some as an opportunity to promote industrial agriculture and intensify production on fewer, larger farms. To achieve true sustainability, government policy must do more to promote the values of small scale farming using more extensive systems and in the case of milk and beef that is about utilising the pasture that northern Europe has in abundance. According to the UK Government, the Rural Development Programme for England “provides money for projects to improve agriculture, the environment and rural life”. So, European funding is not about simply giving farmers ‘hand outs’ as some believe.
Yes it is true that all farmers with at least 5 hectares (12.5 acres) of agricultural land can claim payments under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). But, there are conditions attached in the form of ‘Cross compliance’. Cross compliance is made up of ‘Statutory Management Requirements’ (SMRs) and ‘Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions’ (GAECs). These relate to:
- public, animal and plant health
- environment, climate change and good agricultural condition of land
- animal welfare
The complexity of the Basic Payment Scheme and associated Cross Compliance requirements, means that most farmers spend more time wading through application forms than exploring opportunities to deliver what the Rural Development Programme aims to deliver. The EEB and BirdLife Europe carried out a major analysis of the official data on Rural Development – the only analysis of its kind. The results of this analysis show that not only has the amount of money going to measures which will actually benefit the environment been reduced, but too many of these measures are poorly targeted and will have little real impact when it comes to staving off more biodiversity loss. While Rural Development funding represents the biggest opportunity for delivering environmental benefits on farmland, unfortunately this potential has not been fully realised.
Whilst many farmers currently have to rely on European funding to offset desperately low prices for milk and meat, Free Range Dairy Network CIC wants to encourage farmers to take the lead in delivering sustainability and help them to realise the true value of their farming system. We believe that simple, pasture-based milk production can deliver what the Rural Development Programme for England sets out to do on farms whilst building greater resilience into farm businesses. But change will not be delivered by farmers alone, we need everyone in the dairy supply chain to adopt a more responsible approach to milk consumption. Please think carefully about how the milk you choose and the price you pay impacts upon the world around you.