Greener pastures

Think tank: Onward

Author(s): Ned Hammond

December 16, 2023

This report from UK think tank looks at securing the economic and environmental future of Britain’s farms.

England’s farmers face twin economic and environmental challenges. Two-fifths earn less than £25,000 a year, and 15% make a loss. Food exports have fallen by 13% since Brexit. Farms are responsible for polluting more rivers and lakes than water companies. Agriculture’s emissions have only dropped by 2% since 2010 despite almost every other sector reducing by at least a tenth. Too many farms are poor and polluting, fuelling food insecurity and environmental decline.

Five root causes are driving these problems. Farmers have faced the wrong incentives under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, encouraging unsustainable farming at the expense of nature. Private finance to fund nature’s recovery and lock up carbon has yet to be unleashed, and low investment in machinery and technology has kept productivity down. Aspiring young farmers can’t secure the experience, land, or finance to get started. Supermarkets are squeezing farmers, and trade deals aren’t being harnessed to support British agriculture.

Onward’s new paper, Greener Pastures, makes nine recommendations to put English farming on a sustainable footing. If the Government’s nature-friendly subsidies are going to attract enough farmers, they need to be more generous and less bureaucratic. Offering bonuses to the most ambitious farmers undertaking green action on most of their land, restoring farms’ inheritance tax exemption, and trialling a new regenerative farm subsidy would encourage greater environmental ambition and boost farm profits. There is also a political reward for adopting these proposals, addressing farmers’ frustrations with farm subsidy reform and public concern over water pollution.

Greener Pastures warns that these issues could threaten the Conservatives’ electoral dominance in the English countryside. In 2019, the party won 98 of England’s 100 most rural seats, but Onward’s new analysis shows they are on course to lose 35, with Labour set to win 33 unless the party can restore trust in rural communities.